Operation Moonlight by Louise Morrish: An impressive and enthralling debut novel – book review –
But the discovery of an old suitcase in her cellar finally opens the door on to her past life and her top-secret work as an SOE agent in France where a life-and-death mission brought danger, heartbreak… and a painful betrayal.
Operation Moonlight is the gripping and moving debut novel of librarian Louise Morrish who was inspired by her maternal grandmother – a tough northerner who survived two world wars, the 1918 pandemic and breast cancer – and the daring exploits and outstanding bravery of the 39 women agents who were recruited into Winston Churchill’s clandestine Special Operations Executive.
These extraordinary French-speaking women – of various ages and backgrounds – endured the same rigorous training as their male counterparts and were then parachuted, alone and at night, into Nazi-occupied France to aid the Resistance.
Using the awe-inspiring, real-life experiences of the women who risked life and limb to help the war effort, Morrish weaves between past and present for a riveting and authentic story of love and loss, guilt and redemption, hardship and the shining beacon of hope.
It’s 2018 and widow Betty Shepherd from Guildford is contemplating her 100th birthday which approaches like ‘a dark tide’ and grows stronger every day, and reminds her that ‘death is inevitable.’
Betty has her carer Tali – a young Mauritian woman with a big, warm personality to match her colourful and vibrant clothes – living in and looking after her, but she’s feeling weak and decrepit. It wasn’t always like this… 75 years ago, Betty lived in a different world, a place where danger was never far away.
It was in February of 1944 that 25-year-old bilingual solicitor’s secretary Elisabeth Ridley – daughter of an English father and a French mother – was identified by the SOE as ‘potentially helpful to the war effort.’
But sworn to absolute secrecy, Elisabeth cannot reveal her real work to anybody, not even her widowed mother, and leaves home hoping that as an agent, she will be able to ‘do her duty’ for the sake of her family in France even though she has been warned that her chances of survival may be as low as fifty per cent.
The training for future missions of ‘subversion and sabotage’ is more gruelling than she could ever have expected but it’s during this time that she meets two fellow agents, Doris Waters and Gilbert Donoghue, who will play a crucial role in her life.
And Elisabeth’s first mission proves to be deadly... she must parachute behind enemy lines into Nazi-occupied France to monitor the new long-range missiles the Germans are working on. Her only advice is… trust absolutely no one. And with danger lurking at every turn, one wrong move for Elisabeth could spell instant death.
Fast forward to 2018 and Betty receives an invite from the Guildford Century Society to reminisce on the past and create a memory box, but recalling her life shrouded in secrecy and danger, Betty remains tight-lipped.
However, when Tali finds a box filled with maps, letters and a gun hidden in Betty’s cellar, it becomes clear that Elisabeth’s secrets are about to be uncovered whether she likes it or not…
Morrish’s extensive research has certainly paid off for this thrilling account of the courageous and inspirational women who put their lives on the line to become SOE agents. The young Elisabeth’s gruelling paramilitary training in Scotland and her terrifying parachute jump on a moonlit night for her perilous mission in Rouen are rendered all the more heroic because armed women were not protected by the Geneva Convention and could not expect to be treated as prisoners of war.
In fact, of the 39 female SOE agents on perilous operations in France, twelve were executed following their capture by the Nazis, one died of meningitis during her mission, and the remainder survived the war.
The stark realities of the selfless deeds of these real-life female SOEs have been immaculately researched by Morrish and are superbly threaded into the character of Elisabeth who becomes a powerful and resonant voice for those brave wartime women whose spirit, strength and sacrifices have sometimes become lost and forgotten in the mists of time.
Like all the agents, Elisabeth’s work had to be kept secret from even her own family but as past and present collide, she can at long last face the decades-old truth of her story of love, heartbreak and survival, and find the redemption she had never thought possible.
With a cast of well-drawn characters and a palpable sense of tension, and the equally touching secrets and tribulations of her devoted Mauritian carer Tali playing out as a parallel story, Operation Moonlight is an impressive and enthralling debut.
(Century, hardback, £12.99)