One man’s splintered consciousness symbolizes the fracture and confusion spanning Europe after World War II.
In a ravaged landscape strewn with wreckage and bodies, where order has broken down and the population is in flux, a man named Owen Thomas wakes up in a field, in pain, wearing ill-fitting clothes and possessed of mere crumbs of memory. This nightmarish, otherworldly scenario comes slowly into focus as taking place in Czechoslovakia midway through 1945. Owen, concussed and bewildered, finds a companion in the form of Janek, a Czech teenager who's on a mission to find his brother, Petr, a resistance leader. The two start walking together, glimpsing terrors as they proceed, grabbing food and shelter where they can. Encountering other refugees, including Irena, a desperate Polish Jew with a baby, they become part of a human wave moving west, trying to stay ahead of the Russians. Owen has elusive flashbacks to his past in Britain, which sometimes include his brother, Max, or Max’s girlfriend, Connie, or a working life, and slowly the pieces join together, exposing some shameful truths. Irena is searching for the man who raped her so she can give him back her unwanted child. This small band of survivors, connected by quests, falsehoods, and betrayals, is emblematic of tens of thousands of damaged, displaced persons depicted by British writer Hewitt (The Dynamite Room, 2015) in a vista of camps and clotted highways familiar from period newsreels. The book’s most intriguing aspect is the intricate looping of Owen’s memories, which contribute a fever-dream thread of discovery to an otherwise somewhat formless structure. There’s a world of suffering in this story, sincerely portrayed, yet strangely short on warmth.
As in his debut, Hewitt delivers an intriguingly structured sidebar to World War II, but this time the technique holds greater fascination than the characters.