In 1944 Moroccan soldiers fighting for the French are billeted in Alsace. The vivacious Mathilde, a lovely girl with a vibrant personality falls in love with Amine Belhaj and in 1947 she follows him as he returns to his home.
Mathilde is ill prepared for the sharp contrast of life in a north African country – her first sight was of war battered men, dulled by the fight in Europe, is not encouraging. The land is the colour of sepia, barren sandy, hot and lacking in colour.
Her new home on the farm Amine inherited from his father, remote, and basic must have been a shock, while the few people she met were less than welcoming. At the school gate she longed for at least one of the Mums to speak to detach from the gossiping groups and approach her rather than studying and discussing her.
Amine, working long hours struggling to make the farm pay showed little sympathy or understanding of his wife’s struggle. Her pleas were met with impatience and bursts of violent temper. He wanted his French wife to transform into someone resembling the women in his family.
Mathilde’s new life as a farmer’s wife was labour intensive, sapping her strength in the constant heat, while caring for two small children. Despite the isolation and the loneliness her determination to adapt was admirable. Her letters to her sister were chatty, never revealing the real struggle she endured.
A novel that is written from life observed by the author is, I imagine, an accurate depiction of life for women in such countries.
Mathilde is a wonderful centre character, brave and feisty with staying power, and her story makes good reading. The prose is so descriptive I can almost feel the scratch of the sand on my face.
The first volume in a trilogy suggests there is more of Mathilde’s tale to be told and I look forward to reading how she progressed. It is an interesting and revealing book written with skill.
Review by Sheila Grant
HB, ISBN No 978-0571361618
Published by Faber & Faber, 5.08.2021