The Hidden

Mary Chamberlain

Oneworld, £14.99

Reviewed by Susan Swarbrick

WHEN we cast our minds back to the ravages of the Second World War, it conjures images of rationing, blackouts and the bombs of the Luftwaffe raining down our cities. For those who lived through it, these were among the most harrowing of times.

Yet, it has often been philosophised that events could have been far graver had the advancing Nazi forces successfully made it across the English Channel to land on our shores. How different would life be within the iron grip of the Third Reich?

For those in the Channel Islands, a multitude of imagined horrors became stark reality. The only part of the British Isles occupied by the Germans during the Second World War, it remained under enemy control from the surrender of Sark on July 4, 1940 until liberation came on May 9, 1945.

While other novels – such as The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society recently made into a film starring Matthew Goode and Jessica Brown Findlay – have centred on this period, few have done so with such aplomb and jarring clarity as this latest offering from Mary Chamberlain.

The Hidden opens in 1985 when Dora Simon receives a letter at her London home. The sender is hoping to ascertain the identity of a person in a mysterious photograph found among the possessions of a deceased German woman.

For Dora, it is akin to a pin being pulled from a grenade. The unexpected correspondence awakens painful and deeply suppressed memories of her experiences in occupied Jersey working as a midwife while attempting to conceal her German origins and, most crucially, Jewish roots.

At an isolated farm in Jersey, Joe O’Cleary also receives a letter which uncorks long bottled up guilt and dark secrets from a time when, as young Catholic priest, he found himself torn between love and faith.

The author has a wonderful knack for slowly and skilfully peeling back the layers as the narrative moves across past and present, deftly switching between the perspectives of Dora and Joe as it reveals how each found a connection, experienced betrayal and was plunged into a living nightmare.

Without giving away too much detail from its absorbing plot, The Hidden shines a light on the stories of women and men held captive in the Channel Islands during the Second World War. This isn’t a whimsical romance novel: we are talking human trafficking and labour camps.

In her notes, Chamberlain reflects how the long shadow of war was brought into sharp focus while visiting Jersey where she saw the bunkers and batteries built during the German occupation, colossal steel-reinforced concrete structures whose construction was mired in tragedy.

“There are no traces of the labour camps in which thousands lived and died,” she writes. “I wanted to animate this hidden history, as well as the history of the occupation, its dilemmas of survival, resistance and collaboration. It’s a story of our war that’s rarely told.”

For Hitler, occupation of the Channel Islands was critical to the coastal defence. The majority of workers used to build the Atlantic Wall – a system of heavy-duty fortifications stretching from Norway to south-west France – were forcibly brought in from all over Europe.

There were 14 labour camps in Jersey, five in Guernsey and four in Alderney. It is believed that upwards of 16,000 forced labourers passed through the Channel Islands under occupation. Conditions were brutal and inhumane, with high levels of mortality and morbidity.

The Hidden was partly inspired by the story of Marianne Grunfeld, a blonde and blue-eyed Jewish refugee from Upper Silesia, now Poland, who hid on a Guernsey farm until she was betrayed to the Nazis and deported. She perished in Auschwitz.

Chamberlain also drew on the story of a Jewish survivor imprisoned in Ravensbruck – the women-only concentration camp in Germany – who found her fair “Aryan” looks earmarked for Himmler’s vile Lebensborn programme used to produce “racially pure and healthy” children.

During the Second World War at least 34,000 women were trafficked into prostitution by the Nazis. Some were placed in concentration camps, others in the 500 military bordellos across occupied Europe. This included the Channel Islands: Alderney, Guernsey and Jersey.

Despite evidence of sexual offences against women committed in the brothels, says Chamberlain, these were not included as a crime against humanity, as defined at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1945-46.

“The victims of sexual enslavement did not speak out after the war,” she writes. “There was little sympathy with, or understanding of, victims of sexual violence, and the women in the military brothels in particular would have been vulnerable to charges of collaboration.

“Many women suspected of sleeping with the enemy – for whatever reason – were subject to rough justice and humiliation by shaving or tarring and feathering.”

This compelling and heart-rending novel is a potent reminder that the horrors of war aren’t limited to the battlefields. Nor do they cease when the guns fall silent. There are those who will carry the scars – emotional, physical and psychological – for the rest of their lives.

There is scant justice. But in The Hidden, Chamberlain gives them credence and a voice.