French Title: Nous voulons tous le paradis (2015) – Paradise is what we all want
Now it’s clear that I miss a system that tells me easily where I’ve first heard about a book, but it’s safe to say that this book has been in my TBR list for years, since 2017 actually (that’s when I added it on Goodreads): a book about war in Belgium is not that common. This is a young adult novel, but I’d say it has enough complex situations and all sorts of nuances to suit most adult readers. In France it is published in two volumes but the author originally published it as one. And by the way, after having researched my blog and my notebooks for hours, I’m officially reverting to using the title of the book as the post title, because it’s just way easier. It’s probably for the best if I spare the blog world my silly puns…
The story is told in short chapters that switch narrators and timeline. The shtick is that it never says who is speaking, you have to deduce it. There are 4 characters speaking in turn: Jef – a teenager in 1942, whose family believes that if they keep their head down and steer clear from the German (Nazi) occupying forces, they will be ok, and so they don’t want to have anything to do with resistance against the Nazis either. Ward, Jef’s best friend, whose father committed suicide before the war, and whose mother manages the village’s grocery shop. Renée, Jef’s sister, is secretly in love with Ward. And last, Rémi, Jef’s little brother, who is fed up with being always “the little one”. Ward plays the saxophone like nobody else, and all are united by music and friendships, until something happens that makes even the name of Ward taboo in the family and the whole village. As we dive deeper into the story of this broken friendship, we understand that Ward has been lured into the Nazi ideology and has volunteered to join the ranks of the Flemish troops on the Eastern front, to fight against the Soviet Union alongside the German Nazis.
At the end of the war, scores are settled. Jef is the village’s hero for having helped the resistance on one special occasion, and Ward has disappeared. When he returns in 1947, after having passed as a German for years, he will be judged and sentenced for treason and collaboration with the Nazis. But nothing is as clear as it seems. Why did Ward go away? Why didn’t his friends stop him? What happened between them? Ward was heavily influenced by the local schoolmaster and the Catholic priest to enlist in the Nazis troops; they appealed to his faith and his willingness to defend his people. But he was not the only one under influence, and lies and naivety have tragic consequences all around.
Flanders is the part of Belgium that doesn’t speak French (Wallon), they speak Flemish, which is not Dutch either (don’t go and vex people all around!). Nazis considered Dutch and Flemish as almost Aryans, so that they held both countries under their direct leadership and tried to foster nationalism to enlist people into the Nazi ranks (as second class citizens nonetheless). Which worked to a certain extent, especially as Flemish had been despised by French-speaking Wallons for decades. And as a full disclosure, my husband’s family is Flemish from the French border.
The novel is a tragedy of many layers and nuances. It is really heart-wrenching and I couldn’t wait to turn the pages to understand each of the characters’ choices and destiny. It’s too bad it’s not available in English, because I feel that it would be such a good book club choice.