Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Saturday, 29 June 2013

The Aftermath - Rhidian Brook

The year is 1946, and the setting is a country that has been destroyed, where we are taken to a city that lies in ruins, and introduced to a people, many of whom have been displaced and are hungry. This is Hamburg, Germany and this is the scene of this remarkable novel. Colonel Lewis Morgan is entrusted with the role of overseeing the rebuilding of Hamburg in the British Occupied Zone of the newly carved up post World War II Germany, and with the de-Nazification of the people. His wife Rachael and son Edmund come over from England to join him. They lost their other son in the war and Rachael is still grieving very deeply. Lewis requisitions an elegant house on the banks of the river Elbe, but unlike others who force out the owners, he allows the resident German family, consisting of widower Lubert and his unhappy daughter Freda to remain in their home, living in the top floor apartment, whilst his family lives below. This unconventional arrangement forms the intriguing backdrop of the story.

We learn of brief moments in the lives of each of them, Lewis and Rachael, and the children Edmund and Freda. For all of them, for all of Germany too, it is the aftermath of something enormous. Also we meet some children reduced to living off whatever they can find, steal and barter with, the main character amongst these being the charismatic but vulnerable Ozi. The chapters move between all of them throughout the story, allowing the author to depict many sides to the situation, and give an adult's and a child's perspective. But the narrator didn't feel intrusive; rather the characters were allowed to speak for themselves. I think there were times when I wanted to be back with the scene or characters we had just left, which tells me that I was involved with the story.

Lewis is a kind man, showing understanding towards the Germans and comprehension of the realities of the situation the people are now facing; whatever they have done, whatever has gone before, he is trying to be practical in dealing with the present. His differing stance and approach is one of the main aspects of the story that stood out for me. Others are much more severe, perhaps understandably so. The contrasts in behaviour certainly challenge our preconceptions. Lewis is a fascinating man, professional in his work and a compassionate character, who has very much separated his home and working lives, his mind mirroring Germany itself, with its new occupiers. Rachael observes that her husband's thoughts are divided into different areas:

'She could see he was preoccupied. Preoccupied with the occupied. His mind was divided into two zones, the larger, and by far more interesting, being the zone of work, with its needy subdivisions. He was fine as long as the other zone - the domestic zone inhabited by her and Edmund, the Luberts, the staff - was able to take care of itself with minimal input from him...but just for now she wanted him to engage with her realm, however small.'

Indeed it is his working life that is the sphere he feels more at ease in; comprehending how to renew his relationship with his wife and surviving son after the war seems much more of a battle than the other one he faces; after one all too brief intimate moment 'his mind had already returned to the zone where he felt safest and more effective: to the less complicated needs of a thousand faceless Germans and the rehabilitation of a country.' The fact that this mammoth task facing him seems less difficult than rebuilding his familial relationships shows just how hard this latter task feels for him. He is out of practice with regard to this side of life, and now, being back on intimate terms together 'suddenly required an ability to interpret and understand the nuances of a dialect Lewis had not spoken for over a year.'

Rhidian Brook tackles the subject of guilt and innocence, as the British assess Germans to try and determine the extent of their wartime activities and involvement with the Nazis. People were assessed using a Fragebogen - a questionnaire - 'to determine the degree of a German citizen's collaboration with the regime.' He demonstrates how easy it is to view the situation as black and white, but suggests that we need to look deeper. When he himself is questioned, Lubert realises that, despite his explanations, the man questioning him sees elements of his past as all being part of, or linked to, the Nazi regime. 'How simple this mathematics was: an equation that always ended 'equals guilty'. The numbers and fractions that got you there were unimportant.'

Music is important to Rachael, and it is a connection between her and Herr Lubert. She is determined at first to keep herself distant from him and Freda, or as much as possible given that they are, after all, still under the same roof, but it doesn't take long before 'the careful lines she had planned to lay down - had started to lay down - were already being crossed.' We wonder if this is a sign of things to come. Meanwhile Edmund forms his own bonds amongst the displaced children scavenging and hiding in nearby properties, and demonstrates his own kindness, as well as a touching innocence at times. He has missed his father and has 'a whole war's worth' of questions for him.

There are some well-observed moments even of the minutiae of life in those strange times; witness the 'three officer's wives, comparing household inventories', about which Brook wittily writes that 'it was testament to the miracle of British bureaucracy that even in these bankrupt times it could find within its broken and bust self the wherewithal to decide that a captain's wife did not need a four-place tea set, that a major's needed a full dinner service, and that only the commanding officers' wives should have a port decanter.'

There is some stunning imagery and poetry to the prose that I loved and which made this novel a joy to read for me; Rhidian Brook has a lovely way with words. This description of the weather struck me: 'pregnant grey-black snowclouds loomed, ready to dress the village in fairy-tale clothes.' 

And I loved this striking and very poignant image of a ruined church: 'The facade of a church stood on one side of the road, with only sky for stained glass and the wind for a congregation.'

Later, there is a suggestion that the house itself is judging Rachael; 'It looked to Rachael as if the house were narrowing its eyes at her. The dusk made a grimacing smile of the slats on the balcony.'

I thought this description of a fire was wonderful, too; 'A fire was a theatre in its own right and this one was loud and lively, full of intriguing plots and sub-plots.'

I really, really liked this book. It was surprising, shocking and thrilling at times, and engaging throughout. It deals with some big themes; love, passion and separation, loss, lies and a nation's guilt, and asks difficult questions that can make you feel uneasy or make you reconsider how you had viewed people; it certainly makes you think. I am always interested in fiction that deals with Germany in this period and I think this is a very readable, compelling new novel to add to that field. After hearing about this story I was excited about reading it and I wasn't disappointed. I feel like I could write and write about it, both in terms of language and storylines, so I think it would be a fabulous novel for bookgroups as there are so many fascinating issues arising that could be discussed and debated. It is also going to be made into a film I believe. One of my favourite reads so far in 2013. 

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books

review copy from the amazon vine program

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