There is something perplexing about the title of James W. Nichol’s novel, Transgression: A Novel of Love and War: transgression is singular. One wonders why. There are certainly notable transgressions — violations of law, command, or duty — in wartime; and in this novel, the protagonist, Adele Georges, a sixteen-year-old French girl, indeed exceeds the bounds and limits in her love affair with Manfred Halder, a nineteen-year-old German soldier. Even the sea transgresses, since the novel is alternately set in wartime France and in Canada from 1941 through 1946, and in the end, it is Adele who lies by the sea awaiting the birth of her first child. So, is the reader asked to accept one specific transgression as the theme?
One can argue that given the time and place, the love shared by Adele and Manfred is sinful because it involves mutual transgressions of religious or moral law and because it is deliberate. Together, the pair defy the body of rules and principles governing the affairs of a community by naively believing that “We are the new European order.…We will help to build a world where this can’t happen anymore… French and German together.” When their affair is revealed, the Roeun/French community transgresses the laws of human decency and punishes in their own way: as “a man began to shave (Adele’s) head,” and “a woman came forward and painted (Adele’s) skull in cold, wet criss-crossing.”
One can also identify several subtexts as transgressions. There is an underlying thread of failed father-son relationships that defy rules of conduct established by custom. The separation of families and the concomitant search for them involve transgressions between societies and authority: In France, Adele begins the search for her father, the esteemed Dr. Henri Paul-Louis, “who had gone missing in action against the Germans” by going to the Domestic Population Bureau of Information, a Wehrmacht office; in Canada, Jack Cullen, local chief of police, seeks to solve a murder. In both situations, there are transgressions of law by those responsible for enforcing it; yet, the mysteries transgress as well.
There is love, war, suspense, and psychological innuendo in this novel and each is presented as a series — more than one — of transgressions.
Malvina D. Engelberg, an independent scholar, has taught composition and literature at the university level for the past fifteen years. She is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Miami.