This was my book club book for September chosen in part as it was the 2014 Sir Walter Scott Prize Winner. I was really looking forward to reading it as I loved the 2013 prize-winning novel “The Garden of Evening Mists.” This book was not in the same realm and through out the book I kept wondering why it had been chosen as the 2014 winner. This question was also asked when the book was discussed at my book club at Mainstreet Trading in St Boswells.
That said I did enjoy An Officer and a Spy. It is set in 1895 in France and focuses on the famous Dreyfus affair. A Jewish officer who was wrongly convicted as a traitor. The novel focuses on Picquart an officer who is brought into the intelligence unit and while there starts to uncover the corruption surrounding the conviction. There were three main reasons why I did enjoy this book.
Firstly I studied history at University and much of it was focused on the First and Second World Wars and although I did study some late 19th century history it is not an era I am well read on. With the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World war it was fascinating in this book to read about the tensions and hostility between France and Germany at this stage following the Alsace wars. And why France had aligned herself with Russia. You can see clearly in 1895 that the First World War was starting to be inevitable.
Secondly much of the book is about the rife anti-Semitism in France at all levels of society and the venomous way they treated their Jewish citizens. So often today due to the Second World War we view Nazi Germany as being anti Semitic. The truth is that the whole of Europe was and had been for some time . Perhaps its easier on our conscience to think that but the plain truth was that there wasn’t a country in Europe who was exempt.
Thirdly this book shows corruption in Government and the scary ways that governments take to ensure that their corruption and mistakes are not discovered. It’s easy sometimes when reading history to think that was then this is now. But I have always believed that history repeats itself over and over again. As societies rarely learn from their mistakes. Through out the novel I did shiver at points when the main character’s life is turned upside down as he believed in the truth and justice and wondered how many people today in this country and across the world are facing the same issues.
After a slow start I did enjoy an Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris and did take a few hours out to finish it as the tension in the story built. I am now going to read his famous novel “Fatherland”. I just didn’t think it was an award-winning book but who am I to say?