Saturday, 9 May 2015

Anna Reviews: Back Behind Enemy Lines

Back Behind Enemy Lines by Chris Bridge
Review by Anna Belfrage

Please see below for information about the FREE COPY we are gifting!

A book about a female English spy during the last months of World War II promises nail-biting tension, of gritty action and moments of despair. Back Behind Enemy Lines delivers all that – but much, much more, being an excellent description of the consequences of all that action and the price of setting duty over your heart.

In 1944, a young woman named Anna is parachuted into Normandy, where she is to present herself as Marie-Claire, a French dairy maid. With Anna comes a radio, money for the Resistance, a large silk map which she is to complete with detailed information about the Germans, and a crate of weapons.

It is a lonely life. Marie-Claire is always on her guard, her French hosts keep their distance, and her human interaction is restricted to her network of informers and the people she delivers cheese and milk to.

The story is told both in the point of view of Marie-Claire in 1944, and the reminiscent point of view of Anna, looking back at the events of those months from a distance of 60 years. It is skilfully done, allowing the present-day Anna to add depth and introspection to the sequence of the events that eventually lead to Marie-Claire’s own chrysalis – a turning point in her life from which she emerges not like a shimmering butterfly, but like a badly singed moth.

There is a moment of absolute fear when Marie-Claire is hauled off to be interrogated by the local Gestapo. The grey-haired, distinguished German knows exactly who she is – but lets her go. This, if anything, increases Marie-Claire’s paranoia, convinced as she is that the Gestapo officer is merely biding his time, waiting to pluck her like a ripe plum when he so desires.


Well-known WW2 spy Odette Sansom
And then there is Pierre, her co-agent, the first man Marie-Claire has ever fallen in love with, the first man to touch her and hold her. There is an absolutely beautiful scene just after they’ve met – but before they’ve become lovers – where Marie-Claire returns home to her little hideout, and Pierre has already left, but her unmade bed holds the indent of his body, a promise of future embraces and intimacies.

Not everything in life is black and white, and as D-Day approaches Marie-Claire finds herself in a situation where she no longer knows who to trust. Her contacts in England bombard her with instructions, Pierre has gone missing, one of her informers has been arrested by the Germans, and it’s as if Marie-Claire is walking about with a noose round her neck, expecting the Gestapo to appear at any moment and drag her off to die.

The building stress and tension is excellently described, and together with Marie-Claire, the reader is forced to leap to a number of conclusions, hoping – just like Marie-Claire – that they are wrong. Meanwhile, there are attacks to plan, railways to blow up, information to be sent back to England, and Marie-Claire submerges herself in her tasks, anything to escape facing the truth as presented by her rational mind, no matter her protesting heart. The mission cannot be put at risk, so ultimately, she has no choice – and for the rest of her life she will wonder if she made the right one.

The climactic events of the summer of 1944 leave Marie-Claire permanently scarred. She is returned to England, debriefed, offered a medal which she refuses, and then, once again Anna, she is left to her own devices – alone with the ghosts of her recent past.

Gestapo in France
Unsentimentally, Chris Bridge describes a person falling apart. Anna sees dead people everywhere, she can’t talk, she can’t sleep – but she can scream. To the modern reader, the diagnosis is self-evident: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). To the people of Anna’s generation, no such diagnosis existed. People were told they should be happy they were still alive and encouraged to “get on with it.” Anna sees others like her everywhere. And just like them, she builds a wall around her fragile self, facing the world with a fa├žade that ensures she will never again expose herself to the pain of true emotions. Anna goes through the motion of living – but the woman she was died in 1944, a sprig of white flowers over her bleeding heart, and there is nothing to fill the void left behind.


She marries, has children she quickly discards as being her husband’s rather than hers, and lives on the edges of the family, a silent presence that cooks and cleans and gardens but never interacts at any depth with any of them. Does Anna fail her children? Monumentally. Can she help it? Not really. Now and then, things happen that for an instant penetrate her armour – like when the family goes for a jaunt into the countryside, and the children dare Anna to milk a cow, expecting her to fail. Anna, however, has milked numerous times as Marie-Claire, and as she settles herself on the stool, it all comes back to her.
In the second half of the book, we are with Anna in the present. She is old, she is tired – and she is fighting a battle of wits against her children, who want her out of the house so that they can sell it and take the money. Anna has no intention of dying anywhere else than in her beloved house, the only thing in her life that has inspired any emotions whatsoever since the traumatic events in 1944. And so, Anna is back behind the enemy lines – but this time the enemies are her own flesh and blood, and her allies are two young people whom she discovers by chance and ropes in to help her.

Nathan and Gemma are young, in need of cash and genuinely curious about this old woman who does not hesitate to shoot a man in his shoulder when he threatens them. And when she starts talking about wanting to visit Normandy, they agree to come along to help her, both of them astounded at her fluent French, at her familiarity with the region. Anna is in search of closure. Nathan and Gemma are in search of the future, and yet, despite the sixty-year age gap they connect, and Anna tells them the story she has never told anyone before – not even her children.

The author must have expended endless hours on his research, recreating the Normandy of 1944 in full technicolour, all the way from Marie-Claire’s scratchy French knickers, to the relaxed jargon of the village whores. The casual reference to the rennet added to set the cheese, the odd detail about Marie-Claire’s clothes, of the pinholes in the French money  – it all comes together to create a whole, complete with young German soldiers, stubborn resistance fighters and one very lonely young woman, determined to do her duty no matter the cost. 


Back Behind Enemy Lines is not an easy book to read. It addresses issues that are complex and sensitive, such as Anna’s lack of affection for her children – after all, shouldn’t mothers always love their children? It describes a stunted life, the result of being emotionally crippled by events in the past. It addresses guilt and absolution, the need we all have, deep within, to somehow forgive ourselves. It is also a beautifully written book, with a prose that heaves with carefully contained emotion. This is an author who excels at subtexts, at hinting at the unsaid and allowing the reader to fill in the blanks. What could have been an orgy in heart-wrenching imagery is instead a contained and precise description, all the more powerful for being so sparse. Chris Bridge paints with carefully selected words. A measured prose marches across the pages, now and then flowering into exquisite metaphors, at times bursting apart to reveal the oceans of unhealed pain that lies deep within Anna.

Ultimately, Anna comes face to face with her past and makes the choices she has to make to retain her dignity in the face of her children’s pestering. A flawed and complex character, Anna is first of all a damaged human being, a woman for whom a few brief weeks in 1944 would define the rest of her life. I close the book and can’t but hope that somewhere, somehow, a man stands waiting for her, holding that sprig of white flowers that has haunted her throughout her life.


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Chris Bridge has so generously offered a FREE COPY of Back Behind Enemy Lines to one lucky winner. We will be randomly selecting a name, so to get yours in the hat simply comment below OR at our Facebook link, located here.

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About the author: 

Chris Bridge was born in Hull in 1947 and sent to boarding school aged nine. He studied English and philosophy at Nottingham University, choosing to go there because it had a superb mountaineering club. On graduating in 1969 he became an English teacher, thinking teaching would give him time to write novels. He was wrong about that but his love of the classroom quickly took over. 

In his professional life he never entirely abandoned writing. Until he became a head teacher he used to write the school shows, occasionally starting the process with asking who wanted to be in the cast and tailor-making a script to suit all those students. 

His poetry has been published in Tribune, Scrip, Poetry Nottingham, New Poetry, Pennine Platform and Other Poetry. He has also published articles about education in The Guardian, English in Education and The Independent

Back Behind Enemy Lines is his first novel. He is married and lives in North Yorkshire.

Chris Bridge can be found at Twitter and on his Amazon author page. Back Behind Enemy Lines may also be purchased at Amazon and Amazon UK.

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Anna Belfrage is the author of eight published books, all part of The Graham Saga. Set in the 17th century, the books tell the story of Matthew Graham and his time-travelling wife, Alex Lind. Anna can be found on AmazonTwitterFacebook and on her website


5 comments:

  1. It sounds like Anna, was so brave and courageous and has been unable to see her past with clarity. This book will be a learning curve

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  2. This seems like an intriguing book and has now been added to my TBR!

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  3. This book would not be my usual reading matter, however, how could I ignore such a compelling review such as this? It is now on my TBR.

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    1. I agree Louise, a fabulous review!

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  4. A thoughtful and detailed review of what looks like a multi-layered examination of a young woman under operational stress which reaches far into the rest of her life. This aspect of intelligence work is rarely recognised. We expect people who take life-threatening risks to slip back into normal life after their work is done. This is rarely easy, if possible. I want to read this.

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