The Prisoner's Wife
The Prisoner’s Wife is a well-executed entry in the ‘Wife Genre’, as I refer to the group of historical novels that have dominated this last decade, all revolving around the spouse of a better known man, though this book is more original for focusing on the wife of an Everyman instead of a titan of industry, poet of the pen, or maestro of music.
In the summer of 1944, twenty-year-old Izabela – Izzy – is at home with her mother and brother on their farm in Czechoslovakia. The Germans have, per the rules of the Geneva Convention, put the enlisted PoWs in the area to work, and Izzy and her family are sent a set of British prisoners including Bill King, railway-clerk-turned-tank-gunner. Izzy is immediately intrigued by Bill, and by autumn they’ve married and unsuccessfully tried to flee the area, ending up in a German prison camp where Bill recruits the assistance of other British prisoners to conceal Izzy, presenting her to their captors as a “mute” and shellshocked soldier.
The writing in The Prisoner’s Wife is very smooth and accessible. It alternates between the first person PoV of Izzy and the third person PoV of Bill, both in the present tense, which adds to the looming sense of ‘what happens – do they survive?’ I will say that I did care about the answer to that question. Brookes includes a note about the story and her research (it’s based on a true story, but is more fictional than historical) and she does a good job of presenting her research naturally through Izzy’s observations and experiences. The fact that Izzy and Bill are captured only six months before the liberation of the camps means the suffering in the book is not prolonged (Bill spends a total of four years in captivity, but we don’t get more than a synopsis of the years pre-Izzy), and there’s no on-page torture in this book; only the wear and tear of hunger, labor, and bug infestations.
This book, for all its title with the emphasis on the heroine’s marital status, isn’t really much of a romance or a love story. I enjoyed the believable detail of Bill and Izzy’s summer of love (it has the feverish but never lewd sexiness of Merchant Ivory’s film adaptation of A Room With A View) but Brookes suggests that’s it’s the circumstances, not the quality, of their love, that makes it remarkable. Izzy and Bill fight about directions while fleeing the Germans, and Izzy, when she sees a photo of Bill’s parents, ponders “if I will still love him if he becomes overweight like his mother”. Once imprisoned, because Izzy is supposed to be a mute to hide her lack of English fluency, she and Bill virtually never speak to each other again, which is about two-thirds of the book. Obviously there’s no sex after their capture (a running theme amongst the prisoners is the unhappy effects of stress and strain on their erectile function), but neither is there any real emotional connection. Izzy and Bill don’t seem to take much solace in the mere existence of each other. If you want a World War Two story about a couple that does survive on each other’s love, read Paullina Simons’ The Bronze Horseman.
There’s a trio of soldiers who support Bill and Izzy throughout their imprisonment and who have actual stories (they’re a mix of Brits, Scots, Jewish, working class, and Oxford-educated) and personalities, and are never clustered together to act as comic relief based on their maleness. If anything, and herein lies a problem of the book, I didn’t see the point in their risking their lives for Izzy. She admits “I fully understand that it’s not only me in danger, but that I’ve put every man. . . at risk too.” If the situation were reversed, I cannot imagine being pleased at being asked to support someone else’s husband in a prison system, especially if that person, like Izzy, brought nothing of particular value to the group in terms of skill or knowledge. There’s almost a cruelty to it, as if one is taking on all the burden of marriage vows and none of the benefits.
Izzy is most impressive for how well she copes mentally rather than physically. She fully embraces her fake identity as a soldier, complete with history as Algernon Cousins, an “ostler” or horse-handler, and she uses that identity to guide her actions – “Cousins has spent so much time with horses that he seems to have taken on some of their qualities, their alert wariness, but also their patience, strength and endurance,” she thinks. “That’s who I’ll be tomorrow. The new me.” Bill is a decent guy for most of the book, but Brookes throws in a late reveal of something in his past that makes it clear she’s critiquing people of certain political affiliations in the contemporary United States. What’s perhaps most strange is that, while it comes down heavily as a hammer, she then moves on from it after about three pages. I was left scratching my head. . . and not from the descriptions of Izzy’s lice.
The reason for my borderline recommendation comes down to this: what I thought Brookes did well was avoid making huge mistakes. She didn’t make all the men Saints and Sinners, she didn’t write a book full of unpalatable prose, she didn’t write a really bad love story. All of which added up to a book that I found very easy to read. But that’s not the stuff high grades are made of. However, until I read this book, I had no idea that the Geneva Convention exempted officers from labor during their imprisonment. A book that can tell me new things about a subject that the world is (rightfully so, I think) obsessed with after seventy-five years, is a book that gets a tip of my hat. Not everyone was a six foot four, blonde fighter pilot in the RAF during World War Two and I’m glad those who weren’t are getting a little attention.
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