Love in a time of war, 1945–1948.
Though occasionally groaning under the weight of its mighty themes—man’s-inhumanity-to-man, the-horror-the-horror, hope-rising-from-rubble—sheer storytelling here ultimately wins out, trumping the novel’s self-consciously mythic ambitions. It features a desperate trio: Anna Emmerich, Prussian aristocrat with “[h]air the color of corn silk,” her strapping lover, Callum Finnella, Scottish POW, and the mysterious Manfred, Wehrmacht corporal. Bohjalian (The Double Bind, 2007, etc.) brings them together for an epic romance based on a true-life World War II diary. Callum and Anna, her family in tow, are fleeing Russian invaders, crossing the iced-over Vistula as the Reich nears its bitter end. In their death throes, the Nazis have erupted into spasmodic violence—“live babies held by their ankles and swung like scythes into stone walls while their mothers were forced to watch…” Turns out Manfred’s not an actual fascist but the underground alias of Uri Singer, a Jewish refugee masquerading, exchanging his yellow Star of David for a “Nuremberg eagle made of bronze.” Outwitting the SA, who’d crammed him and his kin onto an Auschwitz-bound train, Uri had made a run for it, leaping from the boxcar. So, too, had Callum arrived dramatically into Anna’s life, jumping from an airplane machine-gunned behind enemy lines, then being captured, and finally farmed out to the Emmerichs as a forced laborer. The three lives intersect as the tale winds through savaged cities. Bohjalian is especially good at conveying the surreal “beauty,” the misshapen lyricism, of the war-torn landscape: “Even the stone church had collapsed upon itself…the once imposing pipes of the organ reshaped by heat and flame into giant copper-colored mushrooms.”
From harrowing to inspiring.