I don’t typically review fiction, but this review is of All the Lights Above Us, the first novel by my blogging friend M.B. Henry. It’s historical fiction and depicts how five women were affected by the Allies’ D-Day invasion of Normandy. While many of us are familiar with the fighting that happened on the beaches, this book shows the broader impact of the invasion.
The main characters included two German women (Mildred and Emilia), two French women (Flora and Adelaide) and one British woman (Theda). Mildred is a fictional representation of the real-life Axis Sally, who was an American convicted of treason for broadcasting Nazi propaganda on German radio. Emilia worked for the Nazi SS’s intelligence agency, and her boss was based on a real-life person. Flora is part of the French Resistance, and Adelaide is a mother who encounters an American general (based on a real-life person) while searching for her daughter near the Normandy coast. Theda is a volunteer at a British hospital that receives casualties on D-Day.
The women’s stories are interspersed through the book, with each chapter beginning with the name of the woman in whose point of view it was being told in and the place where the chapter was set. I found that the place names helped me to keep track of who was who. The book is organized chronologically and divided into eight parts. The first two parts are set in the days before D-Day, parts three through six are set at different times on D-Day (including “Saw Sunset’s Glow”, which comes from John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields), and the last two parts are set the morning after.
The timing of different events, like Allied bombings and paratroopers landing in Normandy, is based on the actual events of D-Day. The book is incredibly well-researched, and there’s an author’s note at the end of the book that explains how the story corresponded with real people and real events.
Emilia works for the SD (the intelligence agency of the Nazi SS), and it’s interesting to see a character who is involved in terrible things but at the same time is very human. The SD was a way for her to avoid being part of the Lebensborn, a program to pump out Aryan babies. Emilia observes that “women were always punished in the end. They were spoken over, trampled on, and batted around. They worked twice as hard for half the pay. When they tried to stand up and prove their worth, people punished them with silence, control, and Lebensborn. And the outspoken ones… who weren’t afraid to stare that injustice in the face, they were punished hardest of all.”
The book is full of evocative descriptions, and particularly powerful were the descriptions of the wounded from the beaches arriving back across the Channel at the British hospital where Theda volunteered. After they first arrived, “It wasn’t long before the entire place stank of damp sweat, rotting seaweed, and sour blood,” and Theda “got tangled in endless webs of ripped-apart patients.”
I was really impressed by this book. I find history, and particularly the history of war, to be fascinating, and it was very apparent while reading the book how much research had gone into it. I really appreciated the level of detail that helped to bring the characters and the setting to life. It was interesting to see the different perspectives of the characters who were experiencing the same event in different ways and from different sides. This was a great read!