By Lynn Willoughby
The Alice Network – Kate Quinn
Here is a new historical novel that wowed me. One woman, Eve, is recruited as a spy during WWI, and becomes part of the real life “Alice Network” in France. The second woman, Charlie, is an American from a rigid, wealthy family where she never quite fits in or conforms to the mores of 1947.
The author alternates the point of view, although for much of Charlie’s story Eve is a participant. How and why they meet, their ongoing relationship, their stories and their lives, loves and feelings make up the meat of this novel.
In 1915 Eve is sent to Lille in German occupied northern France. She is to apply to work as a waitress at a restaurant owned and run by a know French collaborator. Rene panders to the German officers, feeding them delicacies, supplying the best wines and brandies while the townspeople are starving. At the end of each day the restaurant staff divide up for themselves whatever has been left on plates or in glasses.
Eve is trained by the smiling, petite, perfumed, effervescent Lile, the “Queen of Spies.” Eve is fluent in English, French and German but she has a stutter. All her life this has made her seem invisible and simple minded but now, for the first time, this is an advantage and she is able to pass along overheard tidbits of valuable information. When Eve hears that the Kaiser is coming by train to inspect the area around Lille, she believes the information will result in an easy bombing and disaster for the Germans. But on the appointed day she and Lile wait on a hillside outside of town, but the Allied bombers never arrive. (The Allied Generals did not believe it could be that easy)!
Obviously the 1915 chapters of the novel are much more interesting than the 1947 story. Some of the attraction for me was the minutiae of spying such as writing messages on tiny strips or rice paper (which could be swallowed if necessary) and wrapping them around hairpins which were easily concealed. Or drawing maps on petticoats – which were never examined at checkpoints. Lile always dressed in a frothy, frivolous hat and always carried many bags and packages which she would fumble and drop if she was being examined too closely. Not one soldier wanted to be gathering up women’s under garments!
The plot in this novel develops very slowly but it is the relationships between the women that is the glue. Their support for each other is sad, painful and terrifying. It is extraordinary! And how does one live his/her life after the war ends? The PTSD is evident in all the characters in this novel. I expect this is true of all wars.
- Mistress of Rome
- Empress of the Seven Hills
……..and several others
Louise de Bettignies was a citizen of Lille, France and decided in October of 1914 to engage in resistance and espionage. Se was multilingual and ran a vast intelligence network in the north of France on behalf of the British army and MI6. It is estimated to have saved the lives of more that a thousand British soldiers during the nine months of operation. The “Alice” network was so successful that she was nicknamed by her English superiors “the queen of spies.”
She was posthumously awarded the Cross of Legion Honour, The Croix du Guerre, The British Military Medal and was made an Officer in the Order of the British Empire.