THE GIRL UNDER THE OLIVE TREE
Author: Leah Fleming
Simon & Schuster RRP $24.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
In this beautiful book, author Leah Fleming delves deep into the human spirit, highlighting its strengths and weaknesses during a turbulent time that would shake anyone’s foundations. The Girl Under the Olive Tree is set in Greece and Crete during World War II and is as much an insight into social changes as the war itself.
The story begins in 1938 and continues until the war’s end; alternating with this time period are chapters set in 2001, sixty years after war began. This technique works well by breaking up some of the more heartrending chapters – at times I felt I needed a moment to compose myself, to take a step back from the images Fleming’s writing evoked.
In 1936, Penelope George (or Giorgiou) is on the cusp of making her debut and a good match, and motherhood. That’s what her mother thinks. At a dance, Penelope tearfully confesses to a young man called Bruce that she has no intention of joining that “cattle market”, but how she’s going to avoid it she has no idea. When she recalls this time, she says:
‘It was boys who got to tramp around Europe, to travel without chaperones, to learn foreign languages. I’d hardly been down the street on my own. There was always someone by my side, giving me orders, checking the seams on my stockings. I’d never been on a bus or a train by my own, or been allowed to stay out late.’
When the chance comes to visit her sister in Athens, Penelope seizes it – the scent of freedom is alluring. She leaves behind the expectations and rules of London society and heads off with dreams of reinventing herself. At first the study of archaeology beckons, but that is cast aside when … Penny becomes a trainee nurse with the Red Cross and the story follows her days on Crete. Over the course of the war, she works in field hospitals in caves, becomes involved in dangerous undercover work and ends up stranded on the island, the last female foreigner.
It is this epic story of tragedy, trials and wartime horror blended with endurance, determination and hope that Penny recalls and shares with her great-niece Lois as a memorial service in Crete looms. Having never returned to Crete since she left, Penny is reluctant at first but realises that there are some gaps in her history that need closure. She tells Lois about the invasion of Crete by paratroopers, battles and resistance efforts, hiding in the hills to avoid becoming a prisoner of war and tending to soldiers with horrific injuries. But whatever happened to her friend Yolande? And Bruce? And what about the German officer whose path kept crossing with hers? These are questions she cannot answer for Lois.
There were lots of things to love about this book, ranging from a compelling and emotive plot to strongly-drawn characters that leapt from the pages. However, what stood out for me was the focus on the changes occurring for women, both in Britain and abroad. In Penny and Yolande, Fleming depicted two strong female characters who resisted the shackles of their families, religion and broader society, to live lives that were true to themselves. I loved the friendship between them and how this was resolved at the end. It was interesting that Penny’s life back in England remained true to the independence she fought for and won, but I wondered briefly how happy she was with the choices she made after her return – this period of her life is left undeveloped.
The relationship between Lois and Penny, great niece and great aunt, was a lovely touch, and with Lois’s young son, Alex, thrown in, there’s a touching inter-generational connection – the elder passing down stories to the younger. I’m glad Penny didn’t have to fade away and become invisible as she aged – her importance to Lois was clear. The sub-plot involving Penny and the German officer was resolved in a realistic and dare I say, hopeful, way that carries the story off the page … and you know that when you stop reading the story will continue somewhere.
From an historical perspective, this ticked all the right boxes for me. Informative, but not dry or preachy; memories touched with colour and emotion, but not nostalgic. My knowledge of events on Crete during WWII is sparse, to say the least, and I enjoyed the chance to learn more wartime in this area. Fleming is gifted at creating a sense of place – she took me with her on Penny’s travels and plonked me right in the middle of the action. Beautifully done.
I loved this book and recommend it highly – I’ll be adding Fleming’s backlist to my TBR pile.
Available from good bookstores and Simon & Schuster. This copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
Bookish treat: Fresh, plump, salty olives that burst with flavour as you bite.