Film development first, novel later?
I have several reservations about Rhidian Brook’s novel about the Allied occupation of Germany after the war, and the difficult relationships both between the Allies themselves, each with agendas, sometimes oppositional, and between the occupying Allies and a defeated Germany.
Brook takes this down to an individual level, and presents the story (based on his own family history) set in the devastation of Hamburg. The Allies were requisitioning houses. Few of course were left standing, so it was the generally untouched outskirts of the city, where the wealthy lived, which British forces occupied. The higher up the tree of command you were, the better the requisitioned house. German residents of those houses would be billeted out in camps. As the residents of the big houses were the ones most likely to have had Nazi Party affiliations, because any Jews or those opposed to the regime would have been ousted from their salubrious residences, there was a certain rough justice going on in the minds of the British administration.
The Central story concerns a rather more compassionate and nuanced officer than most presented in the book, and, from the afterword, than many had been in reality. Following two World Wars, and particularly the atrocities of the Second, it was very easy indeed to demonise the entire German nation. British publications for military and other personnel going to Germany as part of its administrative partition following the war, were specifically instructed NOT to get pally with the natives but to make sure they knew their place as a defeated nation.
Lewis Morgan, the central character in the book, rather than unthinkingly throwing out the Lubeck family whose palatial house has been requisitioned, elects to share the accommodation. I was moved, in the afterword, to discover that the seeds of the story came from Brook’s own grandfather, who had done just that, sharing a requisitioned house with a German family for 5 years. This may not seem anything unusual, at the time, it really was, given the strength of anti-German feeling, and the automatic assumption that to be German meant to be a Nazi.
In the story, Lewis, a complex man, his very anti-German wife Rachael, and their young son Edmund, have their own troubled family dynamics, following the death of Michael, the eldest son, in a completely random bombing raid, where German pilots discharged bombs which had not been dropped on targeted raids. The German family, patrician Stefan Lubert and his bitter, quasi Nazi sympathising young daughter Freda, are also struggling to deal with death, as Frau Lubert also died in a bombing raid. The dynamics are set to unfold in some ways which might be predictable, and some which might be less predictable.
What worked very well in the book was the depiction of the harsh struggles to survive and rebuild, for Germany, after the war, and also the complex political machinations, bargains, compromises, negotiations and political chess manoeuvres being played out between principally Russia and America, but also France and Britain, as everyone began to move slowly towards what would be the building of the Berlin wall, and the implacable Iron Curtain. Brook is also good at the nuanced humour to be had out of observations around the British Class System, played out both administratively and personally.
What worked rather less well was one of the predictable plot and relationship dynamics in that shared house, given the characters themselves, so that events did not seem quite appropriate to character, but more to be driven by the desire for a juicy conflictual narratve.
I also did find Brook’s use of language to be jarring at times, as he would make unusual use of complex descriptors, which did not seem to have a natural flow, but seemed a little self-consciously literary, self-consciously using unusual, almost obfuscatory, synonyms
the event was now vague and crepuscular
She could smell his bacony sweat and admire his sinewy, glabrous forearms
He could see the cello of Rachael’s hips
I love learning new words, and being startled and awakened by fresh images – but the delight is in these being precise, and apposite. Although Brook does not indulge in slightly sloppy or ostentatious language a lot, it was enough to irritate
A fellow reviewer, FictionFan, sums this all up best, I think, by pointing out that , from the publicity blurb (see her excellent review of this book)
Bought at a ten-way auction…………………THE AFTERMATH is already being developed as a feature film by Ridley Scott production company
ie, this was in advance of general publication. It does bear the hallmarks, good and bad, of something developed for film, rather more than developed in truthfulness to literary form, and then turned into screenplay. This feels more driven by connecting arresting filmic images, scene cuts, editing etc, with character fleshed and given authenticity by actors, rather than by psychological development in literary form