Ok — there are some books that you really want to love — and the author just doesn’t quite deliver. And yet — they aren’t bad enough to put down, but frustrating to continue on through the end. And then there are some books that you really don’t want to like — and they turn out to change your perceptions dramatically. And while like isn’t the right description for these books — they will impact at various levels. This book has been on my too read list for quite some time. It is one of those that I always look at and decide no — I don’t really want to read it. And then every time I am in a library, bookstore, or browsing audible or Barnes and Noble’s website — I just keep coming back to it. It crops up in strange places, and lots of people recommend it. So, I finally had to relent and read it. There is probably one description for this book — graphically disturbing.
For those with significantly conservative leanings and strong opinions about the concept that some material just doesn’t belong in print — this is not a book for you. This book stays with you partially because of the graphic shock effect that Bohjalian uses. Most people, when they think of World War II think of the Holocaust. They have almost become synonymous. However, this book takes a different approach. This one looks at it through the eyes of those who belong to the rapidly dying Third Reich. Boxed in by the Russians on the East and the British and Americans on the West — the German general populace is trapped in the middle. And Bohjalian paints this hunted people in the most graphic of detail. From horrifying rape scenes to the hopelessness of a defeated army in battle — this book haunts the reader through exposure in the most horrifying of ways.
There are strange issues of rage that come to the surface in this book as well. Everyone is angry. And yes, I understand this is a book about war torn Europe — and the defeat of the German nation. But the anger, while not unjustified, seems misplaced somehow. It is hard to describe. I get some of the anger — like the women in the forced death march, after untold horrors of the various concentration camps. And I get the manifestation of Callum’s righteous indignation of the atrocities — as this is an expression found time an again among the allies, as the camps were slowly, one by one, liberated. But this isn’t about the magnitude of the atrocities, so much as about the defeat of Germany’s army and the strangely superior animosity of the German people, which manifests as anger. It just seems misplaced to me somehow. And yet that anger is both latent and impotent — which eventually breaks down to the point of putting the struggles and tragedies of the Germans on a par with that of the Jews.
The characters seem really strange in their development as well. From Urry’s overwhelming anger and contempt for the Germans who inflicted so much pain and eventually finds its express by ultimately driving him to become what we would define today as a serial killer — war or not; to Callum’s apparent disinterest in the war effort, or even being the paratrooper he was trained to be. This of course results in his strange disconnect from most of the story — while still playing a leading role. Anna’s naivete becomes absolutely irritating throughout the entire story. Where everyone moves towards the recognition that the Germans are not innocent victims in this horrifying situation — Anna just can’t get to that realization. She seems to float on the insulated perception that the allies are completely unjustified in their actions throughout nearly the entire book. And when she does finally wake up — it isn’t a sudden ah ha moment, so much as a passive acceptance that yes atrocities have occurred but the response of the opposing armies is completely out of proportion in comparison to what may have occurred.
The sex scenes are both horrifying and completely out of place. I get that people will turn to sex as an expression of extreme duress among other things — but this seems completely off the wall in its placement and occurrence. Combine that with the complete inappropriateness of the timing for some of the characters, as well as the graphic presentation of rapes for others — and the reader simply comes away with a horrifyingly disturbed feeling about the whole thing. It isn’t tawdry so much as downright creepy.
And if you are looking for closure of many of these story lines — you aren’t really going to find it. That — or the closure will seem so pointless, and inane to tragic proportions, or they simply stop abruptly — as if jarring the reader out of the story and back into reality, in the most whiplash type of end. And yet — this is the part of the story that Bohjalian got right. The realization that for the majority of Europe, i.e. the Germans, the Jews, the displaced nationals of Poland, the Ukraine, France and myriad other countries, never found closure. So many were left with no knowledge of what happened to family, friends and extended relations through the horror of the entire war that their lack of closure becomes that of the reader. Bohjalian forcibly puts the reader into the traumatic experience of feeling loss and confusion about what is happening, how did we get here and how does one ever start to piece lives back together, when the entire face of the world has been so completely rewritten, so as to not even be able to recognize the remnants of what was? Simply put — Bohjalian does have the ability to put the reader right in the middle of the end of the war — to horrifying effect and proportions. That experience will haunt the reader to no end. They will come away with an almost depressing feeling of fatality due to the complete pointlessness of war and the destructive wake it leaves behind.
This is not a read for the faint of heart. Nor is it one for those that have weak stomachs or lean towards happy endings. This is one you need to brace yourself going in — because it will leave scars behind, which will disturb and and stalk the reader for some time to come.