Category: Historical fiction
Audience: Adults and older teens. A little mild sex and impersonal violence.
Léon and Louise, by Alex Capus, is a charming love story, but is not a formulaic romance. The book spans decades and two wars, and the two title characters spend far more time apart than they do together. They meet in the final year of World War I, and are both gravely injured in the German final offensive. Léon, believing Louise dead, goes on with his life. The story skips ahead a decade, and he has a wife and children before discovering Louise alive on a passing train in the Paris Metro. From there on, Léon’s wife, Yvonne, is as strong a presence in the book as is Louise, and it becomes a story more about three people discovering the complexities of love and coming to terms with their own and their partners’ idiosyncrasies than it is about youthful passion.
It is also a story about ordinary people struggling to carry on normal lives under extraordinary circumstances. While Louise travels to Africa during World War II as part of the Bank of France contingent safeguarding the French gold reserves from the Nazis, Léon and Yvonne remain in Paris under the thumb of the occupying Germans.
I was left with several indelible images, among them Louise, with no hands on the handlebars, pedalling a rusty, squeaking bicycle and easily passing Léon puffing away on his. Léon searching station after station of the Paris Metro for Louise while the strawberry tarts he had bought for Yvonne slowly disintegrate. Léon stuffing 100-franc notes into strangers’ letterboxes, dispersing the bribes forced on him by his despised German overseer.
Written in German by a Swiss author, based on events in his French grandfather’s life, the book has been beautifully translated into English. The story is told with a light touch, almost breezy in places, with only glancing references to the emotional weight of some of the events. Because we must read between the lines and fill in the gaps from our own experience, different readers may have widely varying perceptions of the emotional depth of the story. For example, when an SS agent coerces Léon into line through deliberate cruelty to his daughter, all we are given of Léon’s reaction is that he pushed his chair back with a jerk. Some readers may think him cold and detached. Others, like me, who have had a visceral reaction to the threats expressed in the previous paragraph and who know what we would do for our own children in such circumstances, approve of his self-control in not giving voice to the hot rage and cold horror he must have been feeling.
Like any story where there is as much going on under the surface as above, Léon and Louise benefits from a slow reading. This is a book to savour, not rush through.