As this is my first review on this blog, I’ll just start by letting you that I’m aiming to keep them as spoiler free as possible. If there’s a big twist ending, I won’t tell you what it is; merely that it exists. That way, you can just read the review, see whether it sounds like a story that would interest you, and then either forget about it forever or pop over to your favourite bookstore, library, or eBook shop.
Okay, so that’s that. On to the book!
Overview of the Book:
When the Sky Fell Apart is a stunning debut novel by Caroline Lea, set in Jersey of the Channel Islands during World War II. The book begins with a burning man on the beach, injured by the falling bomb; a sure sign that this little island is well and truly in Hitler’s sights. The island is given the option to surrender or die, so surrender they choose. Before long, German soldiers arrive and Nazi occupation of the island begins. The stories of several separate characters trying to adjust to life under the Nazi regime are told, and eventually these stories start to intertwine because of one simple, shared dream: escaping the island.
And it would have been 5 stars if not for the ending.
I loved this book. Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, and I have a particular interest in World War II. I really enjoy reading different perspectives of that war. I also really enjoy learning about how unexpected places and people were affected by the war (The Book Thief is one of my forever favourites for this reason). Essentially, this book appealed to all of my interests.
The book is written in third person, but focuses on different characters as they traverse their new lives under German occupation. Claudine is a young girl who is bright and fiercely brave. Edith is an older woman with incredible talents in herbal medicines who lost her husband in the First World War. Dr. Carter is an English doctor who left for Jersey to avoid a life he wanted but didn’t know how to lead. Maurice is a young man acting as full-time carer for his beloved wife Marthe who has deteriorated with Huntington’s Disease. Eventually, Claudine meets Gregor, a kind German soldier who is missing a hand and he becomes our final main character.
As time goes on, each character faces increasing hardship. Claudine suffers horribly at the hands of a cruel German soldier, Dr. Carter is appointed as the Commandant’s doctor and faces constant threats of death to him and his friends, Marthe’s condition continues to worsen and Maurice lives in fear that she will be taken to a work camp for medical experimentation. Gregor is driven into hiding at Edith’s home as the Commandant learns of his handicap and strives to send him to a work camp.
A crazy, desperate plan develops; one of escape. For Maurice, Marthe, Dr. Carter and Gregor it seems to be the only option besides death. For Claudine, it is an escape from abuse. And for Edith… she simply can’t see her friends go through it alone. And so they plan, and they prepare, and they make their attempt to escape…
And what happens then, I’ll leave for you to find out.
A real highlight of this story for me was the writing style. Lea has a beautiful way with words. It was easy imagining the scenery, and I could feel the pain that the characters felt. And I liked looking at the stories of several characters in similar but simultaneously very different circumstances, and seeing how their hardships drew them together in a way that was closer than family.
Surprisingly, love was a prominent theme of the book. In the middle of the war, there were few acts of selfishness or true betrayal. Claudine endured abuse for the love of her brother and mother, while Edith risked death by attempting to escape purely so that she could protect her friends. Maurice was prepared to kill his wife and himself if the Germans came for her, so that she would not be subjected to medical experimentation and so that he would not have to live on without her.
Dr. Carter, who saw himself as a coward because he was afraid to be open with his love of a man, was in the end the bravest of them all. He remained in Jersey when he could have left, knowing that as an Englishman he would be seen as the enemy. He weathered the entire island turning against him for working with the Commandant so that his friends wouldn’t be killed. He stole medication from the Commandant for a patient with full knowledge that it would mean his death.
I found that the ending was a bit anti-climactic, and that was the only real issue I had with the book. It wasn’t a bad ending to be clear, but it was hyped up for 60 pages or so and then it just kind of… happened in a few pages, and then that was the end of it. It was a realistic ending, but not exactly what was expected given the lead-up. I won’t say more, I don’t want to give it all away!
My Favourite Quote
The theme of love in this book was how my favourite quote from it came into existence. Maurice explained the depths of his love for Marthe to Edith, and what he was prepared to do for her. And then…
Edith nodded. She could understand the sensation: life like sudden gold between the fingers because of the beating heart in another body.
One of the simplest yet most poetic descriptions of love that I have ever read. It’s exactly what falling in love feels like.
If you like historical fiction, or have any interest at all in the World Wars – read it!! It’s beautifully written, with strong characters and storylines, and it won’t let you down. Actually, even if you’ve never really gotten into historical fiction, this is a great book to try with. It is an excellent example of modern literature that would be well suited to analysis by English classes and book clubs. I’m happy to say that I loved it, and even though I finished it several weeks ago, it’s stuck around in my thoughts.