Sebastian Faulks is probably best known for the celebrated Birdsong, and last year published possibly his best novel so far – Engleby. The Girl at the Lion d’Or dates from 1989, and focuses on a young maid in France during the mid 1930s. Although many novels set during this period concentrate on the looming Nazi threat and impending war, Faulks’s is more concerned with the spectre of The Great War, with its main characters wrestling with the uncomfortable memories it has left them.
Anne is the mysterious maid at the centre of the novel, who arrives to work at the Lion d’Or hotel under the auspices of the stern and formidable manageress. She meets and falls in love with a prominent Jewish man called Hartmann, although ultimately their affair begins to prove far from idyllic. Beneath the problems that stall their relationship (Hartmann is married) they are both haunted by the First World War, Hartmann as a veteran and Anne by the tragedy in her family caused when her father was shot as a mutineer. Faulks manages to recreate this period brilliantly, the Lion d’Or and its surrounding neighbourhood appear as very convinicing and real. The novel also includes many well drawn supporting characters spanning the social spectrum of the setting; the secretive Patron in charge of the hotel, the young waiter who spies on Anne as she bathes, Hartmann’s middle class and carefree country friends, even a government minister ruined by scandal.
The Girl at the Lion d’Or is very well written but it is a slight piece. Faulks attempts to write a conventional and straightforward novel, and its critics may be tempted to dismiss it as a weak slice of romance – its champions, however, have praised it for its subtlety and style. I was undecided. The Girl at the Lion d’Or is a stylish and intelligent work of fiction but it’s also inconsequential and at times slightly dull. Recreating a moment in history isn’t always enough, and subtle writing doesn’t always equate to masterful writing. And coming to it with Birdsong in my mind, I was quite disappointed.
Next up from Sebastian Faulks is Devil May Care, his contribution to the James Bond canon. I’ll be reading this novel when it comes out as I think, two decades on from The Girl at the Lion d’Or, he really does know how to write well – especially after Engleby, which really is masterful. And he may even be able to pick up spy fiction, dust it down and make it fresh again.