A Parachute in the Lime Tree
Reviewed by: Gregory Graham
It's April 1941. German bombers are in the air, about to attack Belfast. Oskar is a Luftwaffe conscript whose sweetheart, Elsa, was forced to flee Berlin for Ireland two years before. War-weary, he longs for escape. In remote Dunkerin, Kitty awakes to find a parachute trapped in one of the lime trees. When she discovers Oskar, injured and foraging for food in her kitchen, he becomes a rare and exciting secret. But Ireland during the Emergency is an uneasy place, and word of the parachute soon spreads. Meanwhile, Elsa is haunted by the plight of the parents she left behind. With the threat of Nazi invasion, she feels far from secure. A chance encounter with Elsa, and Charlie, a young medical student, finds himself falling in love. Oskar, Kitty, Elsa, Charlie. Their lives intertwine in a climate of war, exile, and ever-uncertain neutrality.
This is the story of people faced with gut wrenching decisions forced upon them by a war they did not want against people they did not hate. Not a new concept by any means: The Red Badge of Courage and a thousand other books have chronicled the angst and confusion of battle. This book examines the lives of people profoundly affected by the World War II while ostensibly safe from the carnage. The ripples of the war profoundly affect the lives of three people hidden away in rural Ireland despite its neutrality.
There is delicate Elsa, a talented pianist, who has been shipped to Ireland by her Jewish parents on the cusp of the war. She leaves behind the danger of Germany, but also her parents and Oskar. He's the boy next door with whom she grew up who now fights for Germany in the Luftwaffe. She must make her way in a strange land living with people who tolerate and sympathize with her, but do not love her while wondering what has happened to her parents, and to Oskar.
Oskar loves Elsa enough to jump from a German bomber over Ireland so that he can look for her. He cannot decide if he jumped out of love for Elsa, or out of cowardice to get out of the war. Once on the ground, the enormousness of the task before him nearly crushes him.
There is Kitty, the most courageous of the people in the story. She is a lonely Irish woman torn between loving Oskar, turning him in as a spy, or aiding him on his search for Elsa. And finally, Charlie, an Irish medical student, attracted to Elsa. The war comes to him too in the form of a bombing.
Neary turns an unblinking eye on the decisions they must make and the agonizing consequences of those decisions. There are no cheap happy endings here. Kitty, Oskar, and Elsa form a wobbly love triangle where proximity is as important as passion, and events push them apart with more strength than they can hold on to each other.. When passion and proximity are both gone, what do you do? You accept what life has dealt you and earn your peace. Life is not fair, and once they realize that, they make adjustments and live the lives they can.
This is not an American ideal nor is it an American novel. As an American, it is bred into the fiber of my being that a man must fight against what is not fair. It is far better to go down swinging than it is to accept ones fate and suffer meekly. The Alamo teaches us that, as does Pearl Harbor and every action movie released by Hollywood. This is a subtler idea. Here the meek inherit the earth and make do with what they have.
Characterization is key in a story like this where the interior monologue is as important as the external events. Neary crafts three sympathetic, totally believable characters. My strongest sympathies lie with Kitty who soldiers on with quiet bravery knowing that things will not turn out well. I admire Elsa also as she tries to make the best of an Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass experience where nothing is what it seems nor is anything quite right. She is a German Jew trying to live in Catholic Ireland.
Neary does her best writing as she achingly portrays Elsa:
The letter is in German. She reads the opening line and at once she knows who this is. The day slips away from her, and the place, and she is back in Berlin with Oskar, as though the entire life she has lived as Elsa Byrne suddenly belongs to someone else. When she looks up, Carmela is standing over her. She is saying something about a sandwich... But the voice in the letter is more urgent than anything Carmela has to say... Meanwhile, Sebastian has started to play the Field. It is the wrong moment for Field, and she tells him to stop. Something in her voice must have startled him. He gets up from the piano and moves towards her. 'You okay, Bubbe?' he said. 'You sure?'
My dearest Elsa, the letter begins, I have always loved you.
There is a musical quality to her writing as if Neary had Chopin playing in the background as she composed this novel.
This is not a war story, though it is set during a war. This is a story of the lives people want to lead, and the lives they actually fashion for themselves; the crunch point between the fairy tales we want so badly to believe about the world and our place in it, and the reality of life.
About the Author
Annemarie Neary was educated at Trinity College Dublin and the Courtauld Institute, London. She is the winner of the Columbia Journal fiction prize, 2011 (US), and of the inaugural Posara Prize, 2011 (Italy). Closer to home, Annemarie has won placings in the international Fish and Bridport prizes, having been shortlisted for Bridport three years running. In 2009, she won the Bryan MacMahon short story award. Her short stories have been anthologised and published in magazines in the UK and Ireland.