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  • An interesting read.

    The French Gift is the fourth novel by Australian author, Kirsty Manning. On the Cote d’Azur in 1939, assistant housekeeper Margot Bisset is arrested for the murder of American heiress Margaret Schramsburg at a Bastille Day party at Villa Sanary. Despite protestations of innocence, she is found guilty and is to be executed, but ends up in Fresnes prison, where she meets young Parisian journalist, Josephine Murant. They both end up in Anrath Prison in Germany, working at the Phrix Rayon factory until an horrific accident takes the maid’s life. Years later, when Josephine is an acclaimed crime novelist, she always denies having been part of the Resistance, and also claims that Margot Bisset was not guilty of the murder. Eighteen months widowed, Evie Black and her teenaged son, Hugo Allard return to Villa Sanary to sort through the papers that form part of Josephine’s estate. The novelist was the great aunt of her late husband, Raphael, so she has to take time from her Paris business selling botanical books and illustrating plants to deal with probate for both estates. Clement Tazi, head curator at the Marseilles Museum, is preparing an exhibition of the Josephine’s work, for which profits will go to the Josephine Murant Foundation, renowned for its good works for schools and for women’s refuges. He would especially like to display Josephine’s rumoured unpublished manuscript, and Evie has offered to search the Villa’s library. Their thorough search yields no manuscript, but they do find a copy of a Leroux novel in which the margins are filled with diary entries from the time Josephine and Margot were incarcerated together. Could this give them a definitive answer about the murder? Manning sets the scene in the first pages with a murder then proceeds at a glacial pace to unravel the mystery, much of which will be guessed well ahead of the reveal by astute readers. The narrative, carried by three voices over multiple time lines, and supplemented by press articles, letters and an exhibition catalogue, is a little disjointed, and the characters not sufficiently engaging to compensate. Manning does highlight an important and heretofore ignored aspect of the war, the forced factory labour of political prisoners and others inconvenient for the Vichy regime and the occupying forces, and her Author’s Note reveals that much of the historical aspect is based on real events, as supported by her sources. An interesting read. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Allen & Unwin.

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