Horizontal Collaboration is set in occupied France during World War II, but it isn’t your standard war story of life on the front line. Instead, it’s focused well away from the fighting, in a French town under German occupation. In the town there’s a garrison of Nazi soldiers but they’re intelligence officers, gathering information and passing on messages. The policing of the town is left to the French gendarmerie.
The bulk of the action takes place in a collection of apartments in a large town house. The apartments house a handful of interesting characters, most of which are female, since the men are elsewhere fighting other battles. The main character, Rose, has a young son and lives alone, with a husband absent due to the war. Also in the apartment is a senile old lady, a Jewish woman who has pretended to flee but is still hiding out in the apartment with her son, the landlady, and a blind gentleman who was clearly not able to become a soldier.
Rose falls in love with Mark, a German intelligence officer stationed in the town. She’s married and he’s a Nazi, so fraternising is frowned upon. However, despite their best efforts to contain their affair to their private quarters, it soon becomes the source of much gossip, bringing with it all the problems you might expect to find if you’re caught sleeping with the enemy.
Navie writes an utterly convincing and deeply tragic account of this relationship. The characters’ lives intertwine and, at times it seems like the story is about all these women and the decisions they have to make. However, ultimately it’s Rose and her relationship with Mark that take centre stage and prove to be the heart and soul of the book.
It isn’t just the writing that makes this book a glory to behold. Carole Maurel’s gorgeous art plays just as important a role, from the detailed backgrounds, convincingly grounding the story in an occupied French town; to the exquisite characters, brimming with personality but subtly illustrated, with a typically continental eye for the balance between a ligne claire style and an appropriate amount of detail. The colours, too, are warm and inviting, evoking the era and shrouding the piece in wartime nostalgia.
The whole package works perfectly, a balance of war-time romance and tragedy, presented in a beautiful, compelling package. Recommended for anyone who likes period pieces, and particularly those created by and about women.