Title: Small Acts of Defiance
Author: Michelle Wright
Published: June 1st 2021
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Rating: 4.5 stars
May, 1940: After a bitter tragedy, young Australian woman Lucie and her French mother Yvonne are forced to leave home and seek help from the only family they have left-Lucie’s uncle, Gerard.
As the Second World War engulfs Europe, the two women find themselves trapped in German-occupied Paris, sharing a cramped apartment with the authoritarian Gerard and his extremist views.
Drawing upon her artistic talents, Lucie risks her own safety to engage in small acts of defiance against the occupying forces and the collaborationist French regime, where the authorities reward French citizens for denouncing so-called ‘traitors’ in their community.
Faced with the escalating brutality of anti-Jewish measures, and the indifference of so many of her fellow Parisians, Lucie must decide how far she will go to defend the rights of others.
‘Every little way we can find to thumb our noses at the Germans is a small act of resistance.’
Refined and ornate, Small Acts of Defiance is the debut novel from Victorian based author Michelle Wright. After eleven years spent living in Paris, Wright has integrated her first-hand knowledge of French history, culture, society, language and location into her remarkable first novel. What emerges from this deep understanding about Paris is a unforgettable tale of resistance, empowerment and taking a stand, no matter how small, during a time of great turmoil.
Opening in early 1940, a shocking family tragedy has fallen on a young Australian girl named Lucie and her French mother. As a result, this mother and daughter must leave Australia for France, after receiving support from Lucie’s uncle in France. When Lucie and her mother arrive at the French capital, they discover that Paris is a dangerous and divided city. With the rising threat of Nazism and extremist views prevalent across the city, no one is safe. For Yvonne and her daughter Lucie, their biggest threat is Yvonne’s brother Gerard, a radical with revolutionary views. But Lucie is a young woman with artistic talents and an altruistic attitude. Lucie is determined to do something and she vows to take a stand against the brutal acts she witnesses against both the locals and the Jewish people of the city. Lucie’s safety is compromised by these acts of resistance, so how long can she keep up the fight?
It certainly doesn’t surprise me that the author of Small Acts of Defiance is an acclaimed and award-winning short fiction writer. Although this is Michelle Wright’s first novel, her prose is beautifully sculpted, refined and expressive. After receiving a six-moth residency in 2017 to conduct the research required to compose an authentic novel about occupied France, the final result is impressive. I really appreciated all Small Acts of Defiance had to offer.
Although most of Small Acts of Defiance is set in occupied France, we have an opening link to Australia. Wright captures the shock, despair and raw emotion attached to the loss of Lucie’s father. As a result, Lucie’s mother Yvonne is forced to turn her back on Australia and move to France. I can only begin to imagine how both Yvonne and Lucie felt about this difficult journey. Wright delves into feelings of displacement and transition as her leads negotiate their new life in Paris. The introduction of Yvonne’s brother Gerard as their saviour but eventually their dangerous foe adds further distress to this moving tale. Wright’s depiction of the sinking emotions attached to loss and starting over during a time of significant uncertainty is very moving. I appreciated this area of Small Acts of Defiance.
With the author’s own experiences as a resident of France for over a decade aiding the crux of this novel, there is a strong air of authenticity to Small Acts of Defiance. In particular, Wright’s presentation of the locations featured in this novel, which she describes down to the street level is truly fantastic. We get a very good feel for the location specific attitudes, practices, values and ideals of this time. It sure was a difficult era to negotiate and to observe this radical time through the wide-eyed viewpoint of a young Australian girl was a creative move by Wright. This newcomer lens was applied extremely well to the narrative. After reading a great deal of books set in occupied France, it was refreshing to see this tumultuous period relayed from the perspective of an outsider.
It was great to witness the characters in this novel take a stand against the terrible events happening around them. Wright’s protagonists are strong, brave, resistant, benevolent and knowing. This book really celebrates the strength of ordinary women at this time performing humanitarian acts and rebelling against a strict regime. The unselfish and charitable acts highlighted in Small Acts of Defiance displays the positive forms of humanity that existed during this perilous period. On the other side of this, Wright reveals the terrible and unthinkable movements that were continually challenging the everyday people of Paris. Despite the fact that I have read widely about some of the atrocities that occurred to the Jewish people that lived in Paris in other texts, this novel still hit me with a ton a bricks. Wright’s depiction and examination of this time is both precise and heartbreaking, illuminating a deeply regrettable time in French history. I appreciated the feminist stance and the glance at the ordinary people of this country conducting such life saving acts.
Many of the scenes described by Wright in Small Acts of Defiance allows the reader to consider their stance, or perhaps even weigh up their own possible actions in response to the situations faced by the cast in this novel. Would you have the courage to take a stand – and how far would you go if your own safety was compromised? These are lingering and weighty questions that will remain with you long after closing Small Acts of Defiance, an affective silhouette of occupied times.
Small Acts of Defiance by Michelle Wright was published on 1st June 2021 by Allen & Unwin. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of Small Acts of Defiance, Michelle Wright, visit here.
*Thanks extended to Allen & Unwin for providing a free copy of this book for review purposes.
Small Acts of Defiance is book #62 of the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge