A review by mat_tobin
Catherine's War by Julia Billet


A fascinating story which began life as a novel first and has now been deftly transformed into a graphic novel format through the hands of the author, Billet, illustrator Fauvel and translator Hahnenberger. It is, in part, a loose, biographical retelling of moments from Billet's own mother's life during World War 2 in France.

Our protagonist, Rachel Cohen (based upon Tamo Cohen) is enrolled at a school for children by her Jewish parents who perhaps sensed an impending unease with Germany's oncoming occupation. She makes good friends here and develops a passion for photography through the headmistresses' husband, Penguin. He passes on his Rolleiflex camera to Rachel and teaches her how to develop film. Rachel decides, at this point, to document life at the school and sees to have a natural gift for the medium.

Soon though, Nazi rule threatens her life and those of the other Jewish children at the school and although they all agree to change their names (Rachel becomes Catherine Colin), it is not enough and 'Catherine' is sent away to live upon a farm. For a while she is safe here and falls in love with Étienne who shares her passion for film and photography. Yet the constricting Nazi occupation continues and Rachel must move on again and again. Eventually though, enough families take her in and care for her and she is able to avoid the war altogether. As soon as it is safe, she heads home to Paris in the hope of finding her parents.

I loved how the Rolleiflex was central to the reader's view of the world through Rachel/Catherine's eyes. It help to heighten and highlight the human connection throughout. Fauvel's gorgeous watercolour and ink artwork (as well as some digital rendering perhaps) brought a particular sense of beauty to the book and I loved how Rachel herself was always surrounded by an outline of white as if cut-out from her own memories. At times I felt the narrative jolted a little but I wondered if this was mirroring Rachel's own displacement. A useful closing comment from the author, as well as a montage of photos of some of the people in the story, made the truth behind the telling here for all the more real. More than suitable for Y6.