Once again Fiona McIntosh has vividly brought an historic period to life, in her latest novel The Lavender Keeper. Set in Europe in the middle of World War II, Luc Bonet is a lavender farmer in the small village of Saignon in south-eastern France, a stone’s throw from the perfume makers in Grasse. Luc’s family’s alpine lavender produces a highly-sought-after oil used for perfume, and for the war effort as an antiseptic. So when Luc’s family is rounded up to be marched to an internment camp, and from there to Auschwitz in Poland, he thinks there has been a terrible mistake.
And in fact there has, but not in the way that he thinks. For Luc was adopted, and his papers never formally changed to show that he belonged to the Bonet family. In fact he is still Lukas Ravensburg, Bavarian citizen, and looks the part with golden hair and blue eyes. And so he is swept up by the Maquis – the French guerilla resistance fighters who are doing their best to sabotage the German war effort. All that Luc can keep of his family and his past are his memories, and a small bag of wild lavender seeds that he resolves to keep safe and to sow when his country is freed from the German occupation.
Meanwhile in London, Lisette Forester is disillusioned. Born in Germany, schooled in France, and now based in England, she has lost her country, her parents and her best friend to the war and now her job as a waitress is all that keeps her going. Until, that is, she is approached by the Secret Service to undertake elite training to become a field agent. That is, a spy. She is to be sent into the heart of German-occupied Paris to target Colonel Markus Kilian, a senior officer in the German army, and see if she can gain his confidence, and thereby intelligence to aid the British efforts. Her German and French background coupled with natural beauty and a talent for being accepted at face value, make her a natural for the role, if she can survive.
When Lisette and Luc’s paths cross, she is being dropped from an aeroplane over night-time Provence and he is the Maquis assigned to smuggle her to Paris. At risk of both their lives they are waylaid by the Gestapo on their journey and only Lisette’s quick thinking can get them out of the bind. The novel is thrilling and completely enchanting as you are swept along in the sometimes glamorous, sometimes gritty lives of the French Resistance and the German occupiers. Lisette’s mission is compromised and in danger on numerous occasions, especially when her loyalties become murky with her growing feelings for both Luc and her target.
The tale is sympathetically told from the view of the Resistance and thankfully there are plans for a sequel – because by the end of the book, Luc still has his lavender seeds.
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