Book Reviews

The Wartime Book Club by Kate Thompson

Reading was the only true form of joy and solace, the only intellectual freedom they still possessed and they cherished it like life itself.

Another fabulous wartime novel from Kate Thompson, featuring a library and its brave librarian. Her previous novel, The Little Wartime Library is set in London during the war and features the underground library at Bethnal Green. I highly recommend it!

The island of Jersey may be physically closer to France than to England but it is English soil. In June 1940 the German army invaded the island, occupying it until the island was liberated, a day after the offical Liberation Day of 8 May 1945. During those almost 5 years the small community learn to rely on their library, St Helier Public Library and its librarian, Grace La Mottee to provide them with blessed relief and escape from the deprivations of occupation.

It is well known that the Nazis burnt books. Grace is ordered to hand over any books they considered inappropriate, but like any good librarian, she hid them in her library, an action that could see her shot by the occupiers. Each chapter features a banned book and the reason for their being banned: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens because it featured Jewish characters: anything by Ernest Hemingway, as he was considered a ‘corrupting foreign influence’; Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner because it was ‘contrary to the German spirit’ and many more.

To help raise spirits, Grace forms a book club: the Wartime Book Club. Each week she reads aloud to the many citizens who crowd into her library. Some of them have never read a book before; certainly never entertained the thought of reading poetry. This small act of kindness and solidarity is a lifeline, helping everyone forget for a couple of hours their hunger and worries. ‘It was the feeling of companionship, the collective act of reading, which had made them all feel as if their suffering were a shared endeavour. The sense that somehow, their literary gatherings were protecting them from the occupation. Nestled in the sanctuary of the library, words flowing over and around them, had kept real life at bay.’

Grace’s best friend Bea Rose is also defying the Nazis. She is a postal worker, and uses her access to the mail to remove poison pen letters written by disgruntled neighbours revealing their neighbours’ ruling-breaking. She held the letters long enough to alert the accused person to destroy any evidence before delivering them to the head of the German Secret Field Police in Jersey. The war may have brought out the best in some people, but it also brought out the worst in others.

There are so many individuals in this book whose bravery is breathtaking. Simple people, acting in extraordinary ways. Thompson makes these people come to life.

There are copious notes at the end of the book which I recommend you read. They give you further information about the occupation. There are also book group questions; a reading list; recipes; further details about the real people that Thompson used for inspiration for her characters; places to visit on Jersey Island and a bibliography.

This is an engrossing historic novel, highlighting the story of ordinary people’s courage and resistance in a time of war.

Unputdownable and highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gaby Meares
Murder on a Monday Reading Group

Find this book in SMSA Library
The Wartime Book Club by Kate Thompson

When you join SMSA as member, you get a wide range of benefits.

Access to the SMSA Library

We are home to a unique collection of books, a highlight being our Mystery and Crime section.

Able to borrow from the Tom Keneally Centre

We are honoured to be the home of Tom Keneally’s personal collection of books, many of which have been used as research for his own works.

Access to member only events

Join a members group, share your passions, learn new skills, make new friends and get involved.

Access to member only activities such as members groups

We provide a variety of member only events, these are relaxed social occasions to have fun and make new friends.

Join as a Member

Subscribe to stay up-to-date