Author – William Ryan
Published – 25 August 2016
Genre – Historical
This a departure from William Ryan’s Stalinist Russia set police procedural series but it shares Ryan’s polished prose and evocative depiction of historical fiction.
The story is set in the last months of the Second World War and German soldier Paul Brandt has been sent back home from the Eastern Front after being seriously injured in a Soviet attack. On returning to his village he finds that the SS have built a rest hut on the outskirts of his village, a luxurious a retreat for those who manage the nearby concentration camp or need to convalesce before returning to the front.
Drawn by a glimpse of someone he thinks is familiar, Brandt takes on the role of Steward at the hut, offering him a brief insight into the lives of the men who make use of the hut or are stationed there. This is a great opportunity to see a whole range of perspectives – from the Commandant who is haunted by the past, the vindictive Scharführer guarding the women prisoners, to the visitors from the camp and of course, the women prisoners themselves.
The main plot is driven by Brandt’s efforts to make amends for a wrong he believes he did and all that he does is to that end. Brandt is wary of sharing his own trepidation and doubts but occasionally he is drawn out to say more than he should, adding an extra layer of tension to the plot. The story has quite a slow pace but this is balanced with action scenes which come from a young Russian woman who is driving a tank which is heading towards Germany. Brandt’s return home also shows the impact that the war has had on his village and the family he left behind, and how his father and sister have fared while has been away. Divisions have opened up and whilst some people have had to go into hiding others are still pursuing victory and are keen to uphold the defence of the Reich to the last.
Ryan effortlessly creates the mood and atmosphere of the last days of the war and makes the book completely absorbing. I’m not sure that I’ve read a book that’s taken this perspective on the war, disillusioned characters who have an inkling of what their future may hold. It made me pause to consider the people in this situation, forced along with the atrocities they knew were taking place with little chance of making any difference. How did people react when the conclusion of the war (not just this war but any war) became inevitable and they were going to be on the losing side, complicit in what had taken place? It speaks volumes for a novel when it makes you consider the reality of the situation it depicts.
As a departure from the Korolev series this may find Ryan a whole new swathe of fans – if you enjoy books like Atonement and Birdsong this will be right up your street. Beautifully written, thought-provoking and emotionally compelling, I can’t recommend this highly enough.
Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.