I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but this is the first Diane Armstrong book I have read. It will not be my last, even though I tend to avoid stories that centre around WWII and the Nazis (most of my family died as a consequence of the pogroms and genocide systematically carried out by the Nazis and for years, I read and watched so much in an effort to try and make sense of such cruelty and atrocities, I became so despondent. After all, how can one make sense of the senseless?). But Diane Armstrong not only uncovers a lesser known chapter in WWII history (the occupation of Jersey by the Nazis) but writes such a compelling tale, I couldn’t put it down.
Dancing with the Enemy is told across two different time-frames. The first is the lead up to WWII on Jersey and how that island – indeed, the Channel Islands – was the last frontier before Europe, or a stepping stone to conquering England – depending which side you’re on. Facts are, Jersey was basically left to fend for itself once the German invaders arrived. In Dancing with the Enemy, we follow the extraordinary bravery and resilience (or capitulation) of the Jersey residents who remained, but especially the local doctor, Hugh Jackson.
With invasion imminent, Dr Jackson sends his pregnant wife to the safety of England but chooses to remain behind to care for his patients. Believing the separation would be brief, Jackson’s decision not only changes his life and that of his wife and son, but resonates in ways none could have foreseen.
Then, there’s young, angry and foolhardy but brave, Tom Gaskell who, determined to fight the enemy, not dance to their tune as his parents and others appear to, takes dreadful risks – ones that have catastrophic consequences.
When young, troubled Australian doctor Xanthe Maxwell arrives on Jersey decades later in the hope of finding the place restorative after experiencing terrible trauma, she not only stays in Jackson’s old house, but stumbles upon detailed journals he kept. From these, Xanthe learns, not only about the suffering and struggles of the islanders, but also their incredible bravery in the face of German hostility and barbarity. Upon arrival, she also meets an Australian academic Daniel Miller, on the island to research what happened to the small Jewish population when the Germans invaded.
As the novel segues between past and present, it becomes clear that Xanthe, Daniel, Hugh and Tom are connected and bound in ways no one expected.
Compelling, heart-wrenching and always fascinating, this is a masterfully written story that draws you in and doesn’t release you until after the final page. It explores the many ways in which humans so often work against their own best interests, can turn their back on goodness and kindness, and for what? How cruel and even downright evil we can be, but also courageous, irrepressible and above all, forgiving.