Good, but not the one: Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks

Maybe I’m falling out of love with Sebastian Faulks. Until this book I had an intense, passionate relationship with his novels, from The Girl at Lion D’Or to Engleby (and even Devil May Care). I lapped up his insightful characterisations. I couldn’t get enough of his scene setting (especially in On Green Dolphin Street). And I figured that if I could ever craft one sentence as elegant as the worst thing he had ever scribbled, I’d be a happy writer.

But Charlotte Gray left me unmoved. It felt mediocre. Perhaps within Faulks’ fine oeuvre, it is mediocre but in the greater world it’s still top class – and I’m just being mean. Or perhaps it is that after reading so many of his books, one reaches a saturation point and more variations on a theme are uninspiring.

I am overstating the problem. Charlotte Gray is refined, eloquent and emotionally intuitive. The plot lines certainly drove me forward and the language is tight and smart. I just felt that it was somewhat melodramatic. Faulk’s heroine is shy, uncertain; her emotions are frequently torn. These are perfectly realised in his prose. But I found it difficult to connect with her: her human inconsistencies are somehow not altogether convincing (which is a shame because Faulks is usually good at them). There were certain things she would be unable to do… but she did them anyway. The central thrust, the search for her lost airman, loses its power because it is pushed so far away from all-consuming alternative plotlines (compare this to, for instance, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, in which Ingram’s quest remains firmly on the agenda). It is feasible that her circumstances superseded Charlotte’s raison d’être, but Faulks could have managed the situation for his readers better.

The novel’s insight into occupied France and the various agents operating within it is of high value; Faulks’ weaving of this into plotlines is to be commended. I just wish that Charlotte Gray had more of a heart, or that Faulks had more successfully shown me it.

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