Lydia Dean works for a London auction house as an expert in prehistoric art. Things are not going too well with her job, she's not getting enough customers in and thus not enough publicity for her employers. A piece of prehistoric cave art, 17,000 years old, is brought to her - the owner, Major Phillip Manners, has just inherited it after his father's death and wishes to sell it. It appears his father fought with The Resistance in France during World War 2, and must have acquired it while in Périgord, near the Dordogne in southern France. But where? It's a smallish piece of rock and doesn't resemble anything found so far in, for instance, the Lascaux complex of caves. An expert is called in from France but before the cave art can be studied it's stolen from the auction house. Lydia and Manners set off for France where they believe they can find people who knew Manners' father during the war and might be able to shed some light on the origin of the piece.
In the Vézére valley in around 15,000BC a young man, Deer, an apprentice artist, is smarting after being falsely accused of an accident in the caves where his male counterparts are painting the local wildlife. He's been banned from the caves and humiliated by being made to work with the women. Deer needs to get back into the cave to paint. He also wants to become the mate of Moon, the daughter of the Keeper of the Horses, who paints horses in the caves. But he has a rival... The Keeper of the Bulls who is rapidly becoming the most powerful man in the tribe. Somehow or other he needs to solve these two problems, but how?
Three allied soldiers are working with The French Resistance in 1944, an Englishman, 'Capitaine' Manners, Phillp Manners' father, an American, McPhee, and Francois Malrand a Frenchman with a future in politics. Their job is sabotage, the teaching of it to resistance fighters. It's testing and dangerous and made much more so by the rivalry of the various factions within The Resistance. Gaullists (as in General de Gaulle), communists, Spanish fighters who fled the Spanish revolution in the 1930s, all are vying for superiority and have plans to be the dominant force after the war is over. Manners is the peace-keeper, the one with the tricky task of preventing them from killing each other rather than the Germans. His main objective though is to stop the German Das Reich division from travelling north to help stop the imminent allied invasion. In order to achieve this aim he sometimes has to make some terrible decisions.
This book could well be vying for best book of the year for me. It really is superb. I'm sometimes not a fan of a story told from different points in history. I find you no sooner get interested in what's being told about one person's story than it comes to an abrupt end and you're swept off somewhere else with a whole new set of characters to try and remember. Here though it worked very well. The sections were not short and 'bitty' but quite long and came to a natural conclusion. The most difficult part to write must've been that of Deer and Moon in 15,000BC as we don't really know much about the cave artists, but it's very well done, a realistic scenario I thought, and I loved the panoramic feel to these sections with gorgeous descriptions of the landscape of southern France.
With my current interest in The French Resistance I found the 1944 sections the most interesting. A lot of it mirrored some of the non-fiction I've been reading recently, particulary the political elements Edward Stourton discussed in his book, Cruel Crossing. I do love it when books overlap in this manner. Fiction often teaches you as much as non-fiction in my opinion, but reading both on a subject can work extremely well if you can find the books to match, which luckily I have. (Another good fictional book on this subject is Jacquot and the Angel by Martin O'Brien.)
There are deaths in this story but it's not at all a 'murder' mystery. It's a mystery about who stole the cave art, where is it, and where did it come from in the first place. I found the history fascinating and everyone's story excellent, the weakest, for my money, being the modern-day one. That had plenty of interest but I didn't feel the romantic aspect worked fantastically well. This is nit-picking... this is a jolly good book and I truly wish there were more around like it.