On 10 June 1944, a contingent from the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich entered the peaceable little village of Oradour-sur-Glane, not far from Limoges, and, for no apparent reason, massacred its inhabitants. The operation was not conducted with Nazi efficiency. It was messy, berserk, orgiastic. In her afterword, Natasha Farrant suggests you Google the village; please do so, if you feel in need of harrowing. The incident is the source of The Things We Do for Love. The village is renamed Samaroux but the dates and the climactic horrors echo historical fact. "What happened," Farrant says, "was much as I described it, though I have been sparing in the detail." "Sparing" is doubly meaningful in that sentence. I'll come back to it – but first the story.
Very briefly: Luc Belleville returns to Samaroux after a five-year absence and falls in love with Arienne Lafayette. He's 16, she's 15. Both are bereaved. Luc is angry, Ari is sad. They joust, negotiate, console. Their trysting place is an old, lovely and abandoned house in the woods. The only room in it not swathed in dust sheets contains a four-poster bed. So far, so bucolic. But this is occupied France. Espionage and treachery lurk in the tree-shadow.
When Luc declares his intention to join the Maquis, Ari, fearing for his life, thinks she can dissuade him by surrendering her virginity to him in the aforementioned four-poster – but in vain. The ungrateful boy joins the resistance anyway and takes part in the blowing up of a German troop train. At this point, the novel undergoes a wonderfully surprising change of gear, of tone, of personality. The betrayals and reprisals resulting from the sabotage are predictable but the narration takes on a new energy; the second half of the story is gripping, elegantly orchestrated and ultimately shocking.
Is it shocking enough, though? The Things We Did for Love is aimed pretty squarely at mid-teens and naturally, perhaps commercially, Farrant has to grapple with matters to do with explicitness. When writing for 15-year-old readers, one's on-board censor tends to start bleeping. Sometimes, I think, it should be ignored. The two crucial events in this novel are Ari's effortless seduction of Luc and the devastation of Samaroux. The first is represented in the text by three lines of white space, merely a suggestive lacuna. The second, while very nasty, is less horrifying than the factual matter on the Oradour.info website. (One might argue, in addition, that ascribing a motive to the fictional Nazis undermines the insane barbarism of the historical event.)
I also had problems with the dialogue. These engaging young villagers are, to my ear, emotionally literate to an unbelievable degree. Conversely, I seriously doubt that the phrase "drop-dead gorgeous", in French or any other language, was current among teenagers in the 1940s; and this is not the only instance of verbal anachronism. Furthermore, there is an italicised ghost voice running through the text which yearns for both commemoration and closure but distracts without contributing anything significant; the story would be leaner and less sentimental without it.
Nevertheless, The Things We Did for Love is an impressive fable about the loss of innocence and the consequent descent into hell. Farrant's prose is lucid, and although it uncoils slowly her story has a savage bite. It is also a grim but fine memorial to the half-forgotten victims of a peculiarly savage atrocity.
• Mal Peet's Life: An Exploded Diagram is published by Walker.0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop
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