Island Song is about remembering and forgetting, censorship of the past and the hunt for testimony. Who was Roz’s biological father? What was the provenance of the artworks Helene sold after the war? Did she collude with corrupt dealers in art looted from Jewish people? Mother and daughter are brought into painful realignment. Bunting’s portrait of Helene’s war years is moving: torn between poles of allegiance, she conceals Alexei, an escaped Russian slave worker, while becoming embroiled with Heinrich, an ambiguously anglophile German officer.
One of Bunting’s previous books — The Model Occupation — is a history of the Channel Islands under German rule during World War II. She puts her knowledge to good use in this elegant novel focusing on the uncovering of one woman’s secret past....
Secrets involving a disaffected German officer, a Russian escapee and the theft of valuable artworks are brought out into the open as Helene’s story is unpicked through an unflinching narrative, highlighting the moral complexities and compromises involved in living with the enemy.
The past is a foreign, and nearly forgotten, country in Madeleine Bunting’s Island Song, a striking first novel that explores the moral complexities of occupation during the second world war. Its focus is Guernsey, “a miniature English county surrounded by the Atlantic”, once a throwback to an earlier, more genteel age, later the victim of a “model occupation” when the Germans invaded in 1940 and subjugated its natives for five years... Bunting’s detailed, authoritative picture of Guernsey under the jackboot derives from her acclaimed The Model Occupation, a history of the Channel Islands in 1940-45...The book could do with some trimming, particularly in the last hundred pages... And yet Island Song carries a strong tune. Bunting’s imaginative portrait of the young Helene – her struggle with loneliness, her feelings of abandonment – is interestingly ambiguous and moving.