The Whispers of War tells the story of three friends in Britain in 1939 dealing with the potential outbreak of war. Nora’s a socialite who works at the Home Office and is just an overall badass. Hazel is a matchmaker who is herself in an unhappy marriage. And Marie is a German expat afraid of being placed in an internment camp. The three friends band together to keep her safe.
Despite the subject matter, this is a fairly light read. The characters talk about internment camps and air raids, but apart from a couple of scenes, we don’t really get a sense of the danger they face. Rather, the focus is on the friendship between the women, and how having such a strong support system can help you survive even something as horrible as war.
I loved reading about the women’s lives and their friendship. Hazel is probably my favourite, mostly because she’s the quietest of the three, but she turns out to be the most badass in terms of what she does to protect refugees fleeing the Nazis. I also loved her love story, which is sad but also felt real. She’s a matchmaker who’s ironically in an unhappy marriage of her own, but the breakdown between her and her husband is more a drifting apart than an actual break. And I love how her actions to support the war efforts makes she and her husband begin to see each other in different ways.
Nora’s character arc wasn’t quite as developed for me. For a lot of the book, she seemed like the rich and powerful friend who had the clout to keep her friends safe in a tumultuous time. But I love the romance that develops between her and a co-worker. I found it sweet, and wish we’d seen more of it.
Marie was the main character of the three, and her situation drove a lot of the action in the second half. I had no idea there were internment camps for Germans during the war, and I guess I never really gave much thought to the discrimination they must have experienced at the time, regardless of their actual ideological distance from the Nazis. So I like that the author highlighted this totally new-to-me facet of World War II, which I don’t remember ever seeing before in other novels.
That being said, I admit I didn’t really get much of a feel of the danger Marie was supposedly in. We’re told that some Germans could be sent to internment camps, but we aren’t given enough information about these camps to make them feel real. In contrast, of course, we’re very much aware of the horrific realities Jews went through during the same time period, and are therefore very aware of their absence in this novel. I get that it’s because the author wanted to focus on Marie’s situation as a German expat, but I couldn’t help thinking about how Jews had it much worse. There was a scene where Marie is hiding during an air raid, and is comforted by a Jewish German couple, and I couldn’t help thinking that their situation is a lot more dire than hers is.
As well, there’s a scene where Marie remains silent on a bus so other riders don’t hear her German accent — I love this detail, because it shows the fearful experience of trying to pass. But I also couldn’t help thinking of racialized communities who wouldn’t be able to pass as easily as Marie did.
I don’t mean to minimize the experiences of Germans like Marie who faced the threat of internment; I just wish it had been made more concrete. Or at least that the book didn’t so completely gloss over the horrific stuff the Nazis did, and the still somewhat privileged place Marie and her friends occupied in the world.
There was also a frame narrative, set in the present day and featuring Marie’s grandchild Samantha traveling to deliver a package to Nora after Marie’s death. It’s Samantha’s visit that prompts Nora to share the story of how she and Hazel worked to keep Marie safe during the war, but the frame narrative felt completely unnecessary. The historical story was much more compelling. I loved the relationships between the three women and also the romances they had.
Thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada for an egalley in exchange for an honest review.