Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell
The aftermath of war can be just as hard to get through as the war itself for both so-called winners and losers – although in reality, everyone loses by degree. Rhidian Brook’s novel gives us a portrait of life in the British zone of Hamburg after WWII, a city which had been largely destroyed by Operation Gomorrah in 1943.
It is now 1946, and Colonel Lewis is arriving with his family to take charge of the British occupying forces. His staff have found him a house, a large mansion on the banks of the river, where an architect lives quietly with his daughter. Herr Lubert and Freda are due to be billeted elsewhere, but in an unprecedented act of kindness, Lewis offers to let them share the house. The Luberts will move up to the attic servants’ quarters.
The house is finely furnished and is full of art and antiques; a grand piano completes the picture. Before Lewis’ wife Rachael even steps through the door, she is intimidated by the situation her husband has foisted upon her…
‘But I don’t understand,’ Rachael said. ‘Are other families doing this?’
‘None of them has requisitioned a house like this. It’s not really the same.’
Rachael had no space for this. It did not matter how grandiose, how replete with rooms, how exquisite the art of the action of the piano; were it a palace with separate wings and outhouses, there still would be no room for a German in it.
Rachael’s attitude can be easily understood for the Lewis family lost a son in the war, her eldest, Michael. She was there when the bomb hit the house, whereas Lewis was away with the Army, of course. She has another son, Edmund, but she is still grieving and angry at the Germans and Lewis for not being there to witness the tragedy. Her reunion with him after this time in these circumstances will be tough for both of them.
The enforced relationship with the Luberts will add another layer of strain, which will in time develop in an interesting way later in the novel. Herr Lubert is never anything less than grateful for Lewis’ enlightened attitude, but his daughter Freda is suspicious and full of mistrust.
Meanwhile Lewis has to deal with the severe lack of food and jobs for the remaining Germans, who are only allowed to resume their prior work once they have been certified as clean. Intelligence is determined to root out the slightest hint of collaboration or Nazi sympathies, something that goes against the grain of Lewis’ ideals. Lewis is a good man, and is unfailingly polite and sympathetic to his host-nation. He wants nothing more than to let the Germans get back to work, to reunite parted families, to get food to them, start the rebuilding, but bureaucracy is always getting in the way.
Alongside the adults’ stories is that of a band of feral children, orphaned, living in the ruins close to the Lubert’s house. Ozi, their leader, is an expert wheeler-dealer, getting the most for things scavenged. Edmund spots them one day and becomes their saviour – Lewis’ cigarettes are better than currency and soon he is appropriating as many as he can for them. These children are the true forgotten in all of this, living on their wits in terrible conditions.
It turns out that the central premise of Brook’s novel – that of sharing a house with the former enemy – is something that actually happened. His grandfather, who was in a similar position to Lewis, did just that – Brook must be proud of him. While all around are taking advantage of being in charge, Lewis and his small team of officers who understand his point of view show restraint and compassion for their fellow man.
Lewis, Rachael and Herr Lubert are fully realised characters and as I read, I wanted the best for all three of them. I hoped that Lewis and Rachael would find themselves again; that Lewis would be strong enough to stand up for the dispossessed Germans; and that Herr Lubert would be able to begin again too – for as an architect, his skills would be needed to rebuild the city.
This emotionally involving novel gives a rather different take on WWII and I enjoyed it a lot.
Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books editors. This review is revised from an original on her blog.
Rhidian Brook, The Aftermath (Viking, London 2013), 9780241957479, Penguin paperback 2014, 336 pages.