Review of How Angels Die by David-Michael Harding

angelsI received a complimentary copy of this book from the author in exchange for a review.  Historical fiction, French Resistance, female spies.  What’s not to like?

In a word, WOW.  This was a Made-Me-Miss-My-Metro-Stop kind of book.  Literally – and I can’t remember the last time that happened.

Honestly, I went into this book with a little skepticism.  I read the first chapter and thought the relationship between the sisters felt a little forced.  One’s a sexy seductress, one’s a tough-as-nails soldier. They seem to have had the same argument for years – is it better to kill people in the name of war or is it better to sleep with them for their secrets?

It’s the story of two sisters in France during the Nazi occupation.  The McCleash family hates the Nazis, they just hate in different ways – Dad rants into his pipes, Mom quietly sews Nazi uniforms, and the two daughters, Claire and Monique, work for the French Resistance.  Monique steals the secrets of Nazi officers by dancing and drinking — and other things when necessary.  Her family hates what she’s doing, but it does have results.  Claire, on the other hand, is a gun-wielding soldier in the Resistance Army who can’t get enough of killing Nazis.  Monique’s weakness is that she longs for love and passion based on honesty.  Claire’s weakness is that she hates so much it threatens to consume her.

The surprise is that Harding brings some subtlety into this story of extremes.  Whose activities are worth more to the Resistance?  Who has the most to lose?  Claire puts her life at risk every day but so does Monique — only Claire earns respect from her father and conspirators while Monique is labeled a whore (the implication being that she really enjoys what she’s doing).  Where are the moral lines, and who is most likely to lose herself in the part that she’s playing?

The appearance of the sisters triggered a soft hum of recognition.  As various members of the movement passed within arm’s reach they stopped to hug Claire or grip her arm in silent acknowledgement.  Of the many who passed, few said a word outside of a soft hello and fewer still acknowledged Monique beyond a negligible nod.

Be warned: this book opens up with a vicious rape.  Harding pulls no punches, which is fine; I don’t want the war sugar-coated.   It’s page-turning historical fiction — brutal but also sad and even beautiful.  Is it over-dramatic at times?  Yes.  This book would be a perfect movie.  And yes, it’s blatantly emotional and even sappy.  But I forgive Harding for that.

If the book goes over the top a few too many times (the idea of Monique as whore/saint gets a little overplayed) it’s got a story that will keep you riveted.  I won’t say more.  Harding introduces a cast of fascinating, at times disturbing characters that you don’t know whether to love or hate, but you won’t forget them.   It starts out a little slow, but at some point in this book I felt like I walked right into Monique and Claire’s lives, it felt that real to me.

That’s when I missed my Metro Stop.  When you look up from a book and don’t know where you are, you know it’s good.

I will say I wish there had been a Jewish character or two in the story.  Harding makes it clear that the Jews are all gone by this time, and maybe that’s historically accurate.  I like to think the French Resistance had a lot of Jewish fighters in it, but maybe that’s only the case earlier in the Occupation.

I can’t tell you whether the book is historically accurate, but I can tell you I couldn’t put it down.

So if French Resistance and sister spies sounds good to you, I highly recommend this book.

  2 comments for “Review of How Angels Die by David-Michael Harding

  1. Isi
    July 3, 2013 at 12:34 am

    I absolutely agree with you: I liked it very much and I felt like going with the girls every night to fight against the nazis.
    I don’t know about the accuracy either, but I suppose that in all the occupied lands, Jewis were gone (gone by themselves or by the nazis, but gone).
    A book to recommend!

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