Novelizing history is a dangerous game. Done badly, it can be tacky, cheesy, and – at very worst – offensive. Warping historical context to create a compelling story risks misrepresenting real human experience. The best historical fiction writers are able to deftly maneuver within the strict timelines given to them and use real people and real stories to bolster the narrative. In her novel The Alice Network, Kate Quinn has taken history and, with only minor adjustments and additions, woven a beautifully moving story about war, friendship, and the lasting effects of trauma on the human psyche.
In 1947, 19-year-old Charlotte St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and a disgrace to her wealthy American family. Sent to Switzerland to “deal” with her problem, Charlotte instead decides to run away and search for her beloved French cousin Rose, who went missing three years earlier during the height of the war. With only a slip of paper and a woman’s name, Charlotte has little to go on, but, through a series of bizarre circumstances, becomes the traveling companion of Evelyn Gardiner, a disfigured alcoholic who also happens to be a former British spy and decorated war hero. Despite her rough exterior, Eve has much to offer Charlotte in her search for Rose. Before long the two women’s lives are intricately entangled and it is clear Eve’s mysterious history may be directly linked to the disappearance of Charlotte’s cousin.
Told in alternating points of view between Charlotte’s present day search and Eve’s introduction to secret intelligence in the First World War, The Alice Network explores the total destruction of war, the strength of women, and the unbelievable lengths human beings will go to in times of chaos to protect those they love. Laced throughout the story are fan-pleasing threads of romance and friendship that ground the novel’s dense historical context and sweeten it up. Characters like Finn, who is Evelyn’s personal driver and a former soldier, brighten up the plot and offer contrast between the male and female experiences of war.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Kate Quinn’s novel is that it is based almost entirely on truth. The titular character Alice – who ran the spy ring Eve joined in her youth – was a real person, a woman named Louise de Bettignies. A former governess, Louise was recruited into the intelligence as a young woman and, under the code name Alice Dubois, quickly became one of the biggest British assets in the First World War. Bettignies tactics and almost unfathomable ability to fool German soldiers resulted in a constant flow of secret German information to British leaders.
Eve’s character is also based on a real person, though much of her backstory has been created by Quinn. When Lousie/Alice was finally captured by German soldiers, she was with a young woman named Marguerite who claimed to have no ties to secret intelligence and cried so aggressively and pathetically that the German’s felt sorry for her and let her go. This woman, otherwise lost in history, became the basis for Eve, who in the story goes by the code name Marguerite. Quinn took a real event and, with a bit of reimagining, created a character so endearing and compelling she was able to drive a 500 page story.
The Alice Network’s dialogue is very believable, never falling into the cheesy recreations that so often plague historical fiction. Conversations between characters flow naturally and reflect the time period well. Behaviors and societal expectations - especially for women - are referenced numerous times throughout the story, grounding it firmly in the time frame being depicted.
The Alice Network is a masterpiece of a novel, and one that will appeal to lovers of history and hobby readers alike. It has intrigue and mystery, action and danger, romance and humour, and it preserves the stories of real people - real heroes - who may have otherwise gone unrecognized.