When he was on fire, the man smelt bitter. Like the stink when Claudine had once tried to burn Maman’s old wool blankets because they had itched.
Even after they had tipped buckets of sea water over him, he still smelt. But sweeter. It reminded her of Maman’s Sunday lunch: roast pork with blackened skin and the cooked fat seeping out through the cracks.
When the Sky Fell Apart begins as the Second World War reaches Jersey. First come the bombers and then comes the occupation. It’s told through the eyes of four characters: ten-year-old, Claudine; Edith, a herbalist; Dr. Carter, an English doctor who remains on the island, and Maurice, a fisherman.
Claudine is clever in a family suspicious of intelligence. Her father goes to fight in the war while her mother struggles to survive, never mind look after her children. Claudine, according to Edith is ‘thin-faced, sallow and ill-kempt. Wild, knotted hair and a torn boys’ trousers and a boys’ shirt – grubby around the collar’. Claudine befriends a German soldier, a move that leads her into a terrible situation.
When Clement Hacquoil, the butcher, burns on the beach, Edith arrives to help. She sends for the doctor but it’s one of her ‘legendary’ potions which revives him. The locals seem to be torn between those who are thankful for her concoctions and those who call her a witch and believe she has ‘the devil’s magic in her fingers’. Edith was widowed in the First World War and has lived alone since. She’s the straight-talking main character and provides an insight into other characters as an astute reader of people.
Dr. Carter is one of the people who comes to rely on Edith, seeing her as a support to his work, not a hindrance. Carter’s the character with a dark secret from the outset. When the bombs begin to fall and a large number of women and children arrive at the hospital looking for sanctuary, he faces them
He held up his hands and quelled the first quiver of fear in his gut by reminding himself of the sensation of the ruler slapping down on his palms if his hands had ever trembled as a boy.
The sacrifices Carter makes throughout the war take an incredible toil on him. His story is a particularly fascinating element of the novel.
Finally, Maurice. He’s stayed to care for his wife, Marthe. She has the degenerative disease Huntingdon’s Chorea and Maurice feels he can’t leave her with anyone else after he discovers her carer has been going out and leaving her alone for hours and because he fears the Germans finding her and sending her to a concentration camp.
But he knew he must stop the fishing when he came home and she’d spilled a pan of boiling water down her legs. She was rubbing at them – perhaps she had thought that might take the pain. But her skin was peeling off in her hands where the hot water had blistered it. Translucent pairings of flesh, like white petals, which she threw to the floor, while underneath, her blood – so much blood.
As the novel progresses, all four characters’ lives will become entwined and they’ll need each other if they have any hope of survival.
When the Sky Fell Apart is an engaging look at the occupation of Jersey. Lea considers the way the locals are treated and what they do to survive – from stealing and hiding to becoming ‘Jerry Bags’ to working for the Germans. All of the characters’ stories have dark elements to them although Lea’s style and tone prevents the novel from being the bleak piece it could easily have been. My only criticism is that Edith is often referred to as ‘old’ when she must be all of fifty. However, without giving anything away, there’s a glimpse of a much more youthful version of her as the story progresses. Over all, When the Sky Fell Apart is a good read and if, like me, you know little about the German occupation of Jersey, an interesting introduction to it.
Caroline Lea appears with Simon Scarrow at Jersey Arts Centre at 11.45am, Sunday 2nd October, 2016. Tickets are available here.