Reading the synopsis of Operation Moonlight I was reminded of the Sebastian Faulks novel, Charlotte Gray. This latter work would not be amongst my favourite of the author’s somewhat patchy oeuvre but the events on which it is based – a young woman parachuted into France during the Second World War to complete a mission for Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) – remained of interest. I hoped that a female author could do a better job of portraying such a protagonist.
As with so many contemporary novels, the story is told across two timelines. It opens in early 2018 at the home of soon to be centenarian, Betty Shepherd. Betty still lives in a house in Guildford that she once shared with her mother and then her husband. She has a live-in carer, Tali, who left Mauritius to escape a family situation. Betty has recently received word that her son, Leo, is returning to England from Australia. His mother suspects his intentions will not be in her best interests.
The second timeline starts in early 1944. Elisabeth Ridley is travelling to London for an intriguing meeting. Here she is offered training with the SEO and the chance to help the war effort. It is made clear how dangerous this could be, that an agent’s chances of survival may be as low as fifty per cent. Nevertheless, Elisabeth accepts.
What we then get are two separate stories, both nicely told. Betty is clearly Elisabeth so we know she survives. Her somewhat rushed SEO training, the people she meets there, and then her dangerous mission, evoke well the horror and deprivation of life at the time – especially in occupied France. It becomes understandable why so many were willing to risk their lives for differing shades of freedom.
The story in the later timeline focuses on the realty of living into old age. The challenges are almost too much at times, even when well cared for.
“Her knees and shoulders ache. Everything aches. Old age is like a prison.”
Personally I found this more compelling than the wartime story, perhaps because so many novels are set around the war years. Tali is also well developed – the loneliness of life away from all she had previously known, especially in the cold of an English winter.
There is a love story within each of the tales. Elisabeth’s made her appear foolish and naive, this in comparison to the determination she musters to survive under extreme duress. Considering the bravery she showed elsewhere, by ignoring key elements of her training – the advice clearly given – she risked her entire mission and the lives of those who helped her.
For readers who like this sort of thing, there are descriptions of sex acts that I chose to skim read. From the safety of my sofa I was growing irritated as it was clear what would happen next. There is a later element to this episode that offered welcome additional context and depth.
The love story in Betty’s timeline is more nuanced. Again there are sexual descriptions I could have done without – that some readers will likely enjoy – but the characters remained focused, in line with their development.
The cover of the book has a pull quote describing the novel as ‘charming’ which, along with the cover art, would normally put me off such a book. I was therefore pleased to find enough sagacity within these pages to surmount the ‘heart-warming’ elements. I learned more about SEO operations, and the sexism inherent in the system. The depiction of the elderly was excellent.
Certain threads and characters were introduced then not taken forward. They enabled a ratcheting of tension and reminded the reader – as was demonstrated during more recent events – how neighbours can turn on each other when behaviour is deemed renegade. I was not entirely convinced that this purpose warranted their inclusion but then I do admire brevity in written works.
Another minor quibble would be Leo’s fate. I can see why the author did this but would have favoured something more complex to chew over afterwards.
I preferred Operation Moonlight to the Faulks novel. It is an easy read – which takes skill to write – but is never simplistic. It shed new light on a time and place – occupied Rouen. There is humour in the contemporary timeline but the elderly characters and their carers are drawn with respect and sensitivity.
Any Cop?: A fine tale of wartime heroism, alongside the courage and resilience needed to face being aged. Add to this the diverse and well drawn secondary characters and we have an enjoyable story offering thoughtful escapism.