If this fascinating story was not based on a true account given to the author by a survivor of a Second World War workcamp, it would be scarcely believable. The tale is that of the intelligent and resourceful Izabela, a twenty-year-old Czech woman, who falls for an English prisoner and arranges, at great risk, a clandestine marriage for them. Instead of honeymoon, the couple barely have time to consummate their match before heading off on the run from the Nazis.
Before leaving her mother’s farm, Lizzy disguises herself as a boy soldier, cropping her hair and taking some of her brother’s clothes. This decision ultimately saves her life, for when she is arrested with husband Bill, the Nazis accept without question that Izzy is a young soldier named Algernon Cousins, who is now mute through shellshock. Brookes ably conveys the terror that Izzy feels at every moment, expecting her secret to be uncovered at the mandatory delousing and showers, or when her period arrives. The consequence of this would be certain death. Yet, instead of being unmasked, the story shows how the men of Izzy and Bill’s hut rally round to protect her, forming a shield while she washes out her bloodied rags, and reminding her to feign shaving when the guards are around.
One of the reasons the story is so compelling is the sophisticated narrative techniques Brookes employs. Izzy’s story is told through personal narration, which encourages the reader to invest in her character, inviting our sympathy. The chapters in which Izzy speaks are alternated with third person narration of the story from the point of view of husband Bill, or from the external narrator’s perspective. The way Izzy copes with her forced silence, her lice-infestations and extreme malnourishment, the latter leading to amenorrhoea within a couple of months, and yet somehow holds her own with the men she is incarcerated alongside is one of hope. Maggie Brookes’ meticulously researched narrative offers a real and vivid insight into life in a prisoner of war workcamp, where death is an almost mundane fact of life. What it reveals is the power of having a reason to go on, to find the strength to persevere when the odds are stacked so very highly against you.
Sara Read's debut novel, a work of historical fiction called The Gossips' Choice was published in 2020. She is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University, and her personal website is sararead.co.uk or tweet her @saralread.
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