Hachette, Australia, 2020
In some ways this book concerns itself with the same central issue as The French Photographer – the efforts of women to be recognised in traditionally male preserves in the mid-20th century.
Natasha Lester also continues her interest in the second World War, its victories and atrocities, writing with intensely sensitive touch on the horrors of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, the work of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and the French Resistance.
In a story spanning 1928 to 2012, the author weaves three main stories: the first is that of the women fliers of the ATA and their struggle for recognition as pilots; the second is a family story of a mother and two daughters, Vanessa, Skye and Liberty Penrose – a story full of secrets; the third and contemporary story is that of fashion conservator Katerina Jourdan and her quest to unravel both her own family mystery and the story of a vast collection of Dior gowns, suits, skirts and jackets stored in a Cornish cottage belonging to her grandmother.
The author is concerned with the place in history that women hold compared with their male counterparts, the relative paucity of women’s stories or stories told from a female perspective. In many ways, Ravensbrück serves as a hideous metaphor of the way women have been rendered invisible.
We are treated to many and interesting details of the development of the role of women in WW2, the way the role changed with necessity as the conflict ran towards its end. The place of the press in expressing and forming societal views is also examined. That many of the appalling aspects of the lives of women explored in this story are factual makes the read doubly amazing. We keep asking ourselves, ‘How could that be so?’ – but it was.
With her usual deft hand, Natasha Lester brings together these threads, underpinned by multiple stories of love and friendship. They save us from the darkness of the war story just like the glittering fabrics and flowing cut of the Dior gowns.
That Christian Dior is famous world-wide for making dresses (as Natasha Lester puts it) and his sister Catherine, who was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French for her heroic work in the Resistance and the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom by the British, is not known much at all provides an exemplar of the author’s motivation for the writing of this book – indeed for the writing of her historical novels in general. She wants us to hear these untold, unsung women’s stories.
The Paris Secret is a book that takes us from the innocence of a Cornish childhood to one of the darkest corners of 20th century history. It made me cry, but it also made me hopeful that compassion and love endure. Highly recommended reading.