Libby Cone’s debut novel is notable for a number of reasons: firstly because, unusually for a work of fiction, its genesis was as a thesis for a Masters Degree in Jewish Studies, which should tell you all you need to know about the factual accuracy of the core material, the extracts of correspondence and orders included in the text; secondly, because Libby Cone is a rare example of how a self-published novel, if it gets good notices in the blogosphere and is well promoted by its author, can end up being picked up and published by the trade, in this case Duckworth; and thirdly, because it’s really rather good.
War on the Margins depicts the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War. While the islands are not technically part of the UK, they belong to the Queen and have historically have a large English-speaking population and close ties to the British mainland, which handles their defence and foreign policy. After the fall of France, Britain deemed the islands to be indefensible and withdrew, leading to a bloodless invasion by the Germans: and suddenly, you have the closest you will ever get to what life in Britain might have been like if the Germans had invaded: civil authorities passively co-operating with the occupying power; a Resistance movement; informers and score-settling amongst the population, and worst of all, complicity with the progressive ratcheting up of measures against the Jews of the islands.
Cone follows a group of characters on Jersey, which is the island best suited as the majority of the population elected not to be evacuated: Marlene Zimmer, a clerk in the Aliens Office, who fears she may be treated as a Jew and goes on the run after destroying her own identity records; Lucille and Suzanne, a Bohemian lesbian couple, who are active in the Resistance; Peter, a Pole sent to work in the island’s labour camps; and Erica, on the run after being categorised as a Jewess. Many of their paths cross at different points during the five years covered by the book: Marlene is sheltered by Lucille and Suzanne after she runs away, but when they are arrested for their Resistance work, she flees in to the interior, where she comes across Peter, himself an escapee from the awful camps.
There are many eye-opening aspects of the story: the progressive deterioriation of the islanders’ diets as supplies become scarce (you will never look at a swede in the same way again); the shocking conditions in the Organization Todt work camps, with the terrible irony that men were worked to death to build hospitals for German soldiers; the decline in German morale after D-Day and the pitiful state that islanders and occupiers alike were reduced to after the link to the French mainland was cut. Cone tells her tale with understated empathy and never loses sight of the human dimensions (on all sides of the conflict).
War in the Margins will ultimately leave you asking yourself one question: how would you have acted if it had been you? An excellently researched and still very affecting read.
Causes Libby Cone Supports
Doctors Without Borders
Americans for Peace Now