The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook
The aftermath of war can be just as hard to get through as the war itself – for both ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. Rhidian Brook’s novel gives us a portrait of the British zone in Hamburg after WWII, a city 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, antiques and a grand piano. 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. Her reunion with him after this time will be tough for both of them, and her enforced relationship with the Luberts will become interesting too.
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 are 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 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. They 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 – he 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 three fully realised characters and as I read, I wanted the best for all of them. That Lewis and Rachael would find themselves again, 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 was an emotionally involving novel that gave a rather different take on WWII and I enjoyed it a lot. (8/10)
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The Aftermathby Rhidian Brook. Pub 2013 by Viking Penguin, Hardback 336 pages. Sorry – no sign of the paperback yet.