Why, why, why have I left my review of Rhidian Brook’s historical novel, The Aftermath, so long? I had so much to say about it when I finished it in July (although, perhaps too much and that’s why my thoughts were a jumble). Anyway, it’s worth a brief review because it’s a book that I think will be among my favourites for the year.
The story is set in Hamburg in 1946. Thousands remain displaced in what has become the British Occupied Zone. Colonel Lewis Morgan is in charge of overseeing the rebuilding of Hamburg, a city that was all but destroyed during an eight-day British air raid. Compared to his peers, Lewis takes a humanistic approach to his work, acknowledging the German losses as equal and as painful as the those of the Allies. His attitude sits uncomfortably with his bereaved wife, Rachael, and their only remaining son, Edmund. Rachael’s grief is all-encompassing and Edmund, a young boy whose memory is dominated by being at war, understands only that people are either friends or the ‘enemy’.
‘Do you know we dropped more bombs on Hamburg in a weekend than the Germans dropped on London in the entire war?’ He said it to Edmund but he wanted Rachael to hear it, wanted her to take in its full force; to eliminate the prejudice and self-pity.
When Lewis is told that they will be living in a requisitioned house, he balks at the idea of evicting the German family. Rather than force its owners, a widower and his traumatised daughter, to leave their home, Lewis insists that the two families live together. In doing so, they confront their grief and their prejudices. Rachael is very unhappy about the arrangement –
‘And now you make me live here with these people.’
‘Everyone here – everyone in this house – has experienced loss.’
‘I don’t care. I don’t care if everyone in the world has lost a son. The pain would be the same.’
The story highlights that grey, sometimes uncomfortable space between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Lewis’s compassionate response to the people of Hamburg is the opposite of all those around him. Brook does not make him a hero though, but rather someone dogmatic in his beliefs – ‘ …unfounded prejudice cemented into hard opinion and went on to form policy.’ Lewis’s refusal to see situations and decisions as binary has unexpected consequences, and Brook uses these to drive the plot.
Brook also explores the theme of forgiveness – it has come up a few times in my reading this year, most notably in Kate Rossmanith’s thought-provoking examination of remorse in a personal and legal sense – and to read in The Aftermath of characters who are being asked to forgive in difficult circumstances, was interesting.
Lastly, I must mention how grief is managed in The Aftermath – essentially, it’s bundled tightly with forgiveness. Some characters manage to untangle the two, others can’t. It’s honest, believable and brilliantly executed.
But grief, stirred with other unspoken resentments, can set loose a flock of squawking thoughts which, once out of the cage, are hard to put back.
Pain was uniquely one’s own, and undiminished by a democracy of suffering.
Quibbles? We don’t see Lewis grieving as much as you might expect – stiff upper lip? Perhaps, but for such a empathetic man, it was a slight flaw.
4/5 Superb (and check out this article about the true story behind The Aftermath).
Essential commodities may have been scarce, but the tried and tested stimulants and suppressants of the Empire continued to flow like oil from a deep reservoir. This was no glitch. Gin, as every commissioner, general, and governor knew, could bring sophistication to the bleakest of outposts and lift the spirits of Britain’s most downhearted servants. Its manufacture and distribution was a national priority.
There’s no tonic, so instead the women settle on pink gin cocktails.