Island Song

Written by Madeleine Bunting
Review by Karen Warren

Island Song is set partly in the present day and partly during the Second World War. The main story features Helene, a young married woman living in Guernsey during the German Occupation. The island is cut off from the outside world, and she faces a constant struggle for survival, with food and other provisions increasingly hard to find; at the same time there is a lack of any news about her husband and brother, who are away fighting. The author uses Helene’s relationships with a German soldier and a Russian prisoner to explore the moral choices and dilemmas imposed by wartime and suffering.

The contemporary story is that of Helene’s daughter Roz and her attempt to learn about her mother’s early life. During her research she meets Antoine, a French academic, who is looking for Nazi-looted artwork. It soon becomes apparent that their quests are connected.

At first sight Island Song seems like a superior kind of Victoria Hislop, with a modern protagonist who visits an unknown place in search of family secrets. But there is more to it than that. There are parallels between Antoine’s pursuit of public justice and Roz’s need to know the truth about herself. When Antoine says that a country should not be allowed to choose “what to forget and what to remember,” he could equally be talking about personal history. But in practice both countries and individuals can – and do – pick and choose.

I found this an interesting and multi-layered novel, and I enjoyed the focus on Guernsey, whose wartime history is sometimes overlooked. Thoroughly recommended.