Wray, a young writer of Austrian-American descent, slowly and surely creates a moving characterization of a casualty of both war and peace who finds himself both a son without a family and a man without a country.
The story begins in 1917, when teenaged Oskar Voxlauer leaves his family and village to join the Austrian army. Then it shifts to 1938, and Oskar’s return home for a brief reunion with his “Maman” (a former opera singer) and details about the death of his father (a suicide), before taking a job as gamekeeper on a remote property in the nearby mountains. Thereafter, Oskar’s present experiences (with old acquaintances and with a new love, an embittered woman named Else) alternate with italicized passages recalling his wartime experiences, culminating in the act that caused him to desert and undertake a 20-year “exile” among “Bolsheviks” in the Ukraine. Inevitably, the shadow of Hitler’s gathering momentum falls across all the lives that Oskar is involved with. The Nazi juggernaut is incarnated in the quietly menacing figure of Else’s cousin Kurt Bauer, a young Obersturmführer whose combative conversations with Oskar encapsulate tensions soon to explode in open violence. Wray paces this dark story expertly: once crucial revelations about Oskar’s combat days have been made, suspense is maintained by increased concentration on the enigmatic Kurt, whose rise through the SS ranks is itself charted in vivid italicized segments. The rhythmic alternation between past and present is handled adroitly, and the soberly realistic scenes are enlivened by precise, evocative descriptive writing (“Fox and weasel tracks scattered in all directions over the powder [of a light snowfall] and showed clean as picture negatives on the gravel underneath”).
A first novel that’s really about something, blessedly free of authorial navel-gazing.