Whenever I think about war I tend to envision men lined up in uniforms, attacking the enemy across a relatively distinct line. How Angels Die takes a unique approach to war that completely sets this stereotype on edge, showing at its core the brave and determined women who fought against the German occupation of France for the French Resistance during WWII. It is a violent yet tender, heartbreakingly vivid story of two sisters, fighting for the same side yet often divided, and the harsh realities they learn fighting for a peace that refuses to come easily.
Claire and Monique McCleash have grown up in their small French coastal town surrounded by war. The noose around their country has continued to tighten as the WWII Nazi soldiers invaded and then occupied their country. Now in June 1944, each sister will decide to fight against these invaders but in very different, opposing ways.
Fiery Claire exults in her ability to physically fight against the Germans and becomes a guerrilla fighter for the French Resistance. Setting as her goal to kill as many Nazis as possible, she thinks little for her safety. Even when her own mother and sister beg her to not risk her life so easily she refuses to bend her focus from its target. The thought of coming into contact with these monsters without a gun firmly pointed at their heads makes her sick. This makes her sister’s seeming ease with the enemy that much harder to bear.
Monique, a much softer, subtle fighter, seduces German officers for information she can pass along to the Resistance. She sees giving her attention and body to these men as somewhat of a trade off they get her time and love for a few hours and she gets the information she needs to help her cause. But both Claire and their father look down on Monique’s actions and see her utter lack of disgust for these intruders as proof that she enjoys her work and is little better than a whore. Still, both sisters push on, one with a gun and the other with a smile and a wink.
When Monique falls in love with one of the German officers, her allegiances are placed in jeopardy. How can she use this man that she now wants to be with more than anything? What other choice does she have when her core commitments have always been to her family and her country’s cause for freedom?
As both of their worlds begin to unravel many secrets – some complete shocks and others hinted at but never elaborated on – are revealed and their very lives are put in danger. Both will have to decide what matters most to them in life and what they are willing to risk for it.
Coming away from reading How Angels Die, my first thought is that this is a beautifully written book. The clear, descriptive writing allows you to journey along with the characters and see and feel what they do as they experience the various heartbreaks of war. It is gritty and graphic when it needs to be but also has the ability to back away and reveal the more delicate and touching moments and relationships as well. Alternating between varying points of view, the reader gets a well rounded look at the many different ways French citizens helped the Resistance and the varying types of love one can experience in a lifetime. Even Pieter, the German soldier Monique falls in love with, offers his own influence to the reading experience as he forces you to see that not every German was incapable of love and compassion.
My second thought would have to be that there is a lot going on in this story. While they all have a place in the overall experience some aspects seemed to draw my attention away from the main story of Monique and Claire’s relationship. One aside in particular, a bittersweet love story focusing on two Resistance fighters, Paul and Valerie, who make a devastating decision right before they are to be attacked by some German solders, was actually my favorite part of the book but would have been better served as its own story. This would have allowed for more character and story development on their part as well as served to consolidate and focus this long book. The dialogue is also more modern then I would imagine would have been used in this time period and locale which, while it did not bother me at all during the reading, I know is annoying to some historical fiction fans.
At the end I think this book was exceedingly enjoyable. While it is dense and packed full of story lines and plot points that sometimes make for a slow read, its incredibly descriptive writing and pitch perfect display of just about every emotion available made for a thoroughly satisfying read. It is in no way a happy-go-lucky romp of a story but what it is is an exploration of how far someone will go for love and the redemption that can be found even during the darkest of days. I would recommend it to history lovers, people who enjoy sister stories or tales of love in all its forms.
Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, their dog Oliver and their fish Finn. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by David-Michael Harding. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.