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While We Still Live: Helen MacInnes, Titan, January 2013

In a way, the setting of this book is timely – I don’t think I’d read about Poland’s experiences during the end of 1939 before and they are salutary. It is a sympathetic treatment of the Poles, facing war, occupation and oppression – the latter perhaps worse than any they had yet known, although there’s some discussion about the nation’s past – from Nazi Germany on the one hand, and Soviet Russia on the other. It’s a long, gripping read.

Anglo-Scot Sheila Matthews has overstayed in Poland, although she knows war is coming, with a family, the Aleksanders, she has grown to love, even though she has realised she isn’t in love with the son who invited her there. As Germany advances, she has to leave through the good offices of friends – but a man with a German name who claims to know her uncle offers a quicker way out of the country. However, by the time Sheila reaches Warsaw, departing is further complicated as Polish forces muster, and something inside Sheila rebels and refuses to join the last train of foreigners, who seem petty and self-serving.

The next day, when all is chaos, in her attempt to do the right thing and reach out to Hofmeyer, her uncle’s so-called friend, she comes to the attention of the Polish security services and finally gets an answer to the mystery of her life, which is her father Charles Matthews, who died under unexplained circumstances and whom the uncle who brought her up has never discussed much. A series of coincidences and Sheila’s deep feeling for the country where she tasted family life mean that she is offered a chance to act as a secret agent, ready to fight the Nazis in the imminent occupation.

She agrees, and thus is in Warsaw for the siege of September 1939, under near-constant bombardment, suffering the loss of supplies, the constant threat of death and the horrifying reality of losing friends. This is one of the more harrowing passages in the book, although we stay with Sheila as the victorious Nazis arrive, and her role is to pretend to be a German agent, while knowing a great deal about the plans for the Polish resistance. But she’s an amateur and her instinct is still to protect the family and friends who have been so kind to her. This instinct leads to the next part of the book, when Sheila leaves the city for an only partially successful rescue attempt, into danger from a Nazi official who was always too interested in her and his own advancement. There is also danger from the Polish resistance itself and the merest slip for someone with the wrong accent under the new regime. She also reunites with a man whom she only met once before, but who left more of an impression on her than Andrew Aleksander or Stevens, the American who sheltered her in Warsaw, did.

I don’t think I’ve read a MacInnes book with such a large sweep to it before, and I see I haven’t posted enough about her to give her a tag either, although this has too narrow a focus to be an epic. An epic would follow the Aleksanders, say. As you’d expect, the spy thriller elements and romantic subplot loom large, but it’s very much about Poland and its people, the fervour that most of them showed in opposing and resisting and the cost that was paid, even in the few months covered in this book. Admittedly, this is seen through the perspective of a young woman who, however much she identifies with them and suffers alongside them, is British.

I would have preferred the book to go deeper and be wider in scope, although I think Sheila’s story would have been my favourite strand. She starts off as a rather frustrating character who will not listen to the good advice to get out already, but MacInnes gradually gives us an insight into why Sheila won’t leave and why she has allied herself with the Poles. She turns into one of the authoress’s capable amateurs, partly an inherited capability, it is suggested (the influence of Sheila’s poor mother on her personality and mental landscape appears to be negligible) and partly because needs must, but we see the impact of the trauma and stress she endures too.

It’s a reprint, and there were a few patches where the punctuation was slipshod. I think it was a fault of MacInnes’s writing, though, when the POV, which mainly sticks with Sheila, switched just for a bit, into someone else’s head. It got a bit confusing and pulled me out of the flow of the story. I presume the author must have talked to first hand witnesses about at least some of what happened in Poland at the time – the book was first published some five years after the events it describes.
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