Book Group – “Island Song” by Madeleine Bunting

Eight of us gathered at a sunny house Tues 7 May evening –  

One of us introduced the author, Madeleine Bunting, who not everyone had previously come across.  With a long and respected career in journalism she is already known for her non-fiction books, representing her interest in a wide range of topics.  Island Song, set mainly in Guernsey,  is the first of her two works of fiction but it also reflects the very thorough research that had gone into a previous non-fiction book ‘The Model Occupation: The Channel Islands under German Rule 1940-45’.  Would ‘docu-fiction’ be an appropriate description for this book, or was Island Song a completely successful novel in its own right?

Everyone had found the book easy to read, though perhaps the author had tried to pack rather too much in, making it seem longer than it was.  There was some discussion on which parts of the plot might have been dispensed with – perhaps the art theft, perhaps the affair with the charming Antoine – but a case could be made for both. Altogether the story was a complex one, with international perspectives and many twists and turns particularly towards the end. It was so skilfully put together that no-one saw the final twist coming.  The book began with Roz, in 1994, but moved its focus to wartime and her mother, Helene, an islander.  To say Helene’s life was strongly affected by the German occupation is an understatement, and amongst the group there were different levels of empathy for her and her actions – was she a weak character, a victim or a pragmatist, given that she was in an impossible situation with no end in sight?  All of us were horrified by the reality that came across in the novel of Nazi fortifications,  brutality towards prisoners of war, ongoing corruption and a small population left to deal with the invasion as best they could.  The aftermath in post-war years of all this trauma on the protagonists only became clear towards the end of the book (though perhaps not clear enough as most of us had to leaf back to check dates and try to work out how so many secrets could have been kept).  Everyone seemed to have found the book a good read but in the end Helene’s character was still a bit of a mystery.