A debut novel about a boy’s all-too-quick passage into manhood during World War I.
Yanowitz delivers a multilayered narrative about a Jewish Englishman, Neuman Director. His grandson, John, discovers a letter that refers to Neuman’s memoirs, which tell of his experiences during the First World War. As a 14-year-old boy living in the Jewish Quarter of London in 1918, Neuman lies about his age and enlists in the British Army, joined by his best friend, Zachary. Emboldened by the thought of claiming Palestine as a safe harbor for his fellow Jews, Neuman leaves his aggrieved but proud family and joins one of the army’s Jewish brigades, eventually dubbed the Judeans. He enters the war quickly; instead of the usual two weeks of training camp, he has a paltry three days before he sets sail for Egypt, ready to experience combat. Cocksure, athletically nimble and conversant in five languages, Neuman draws his superior officers’ attention, and they choose him for a secret initiative to smuggle British rifles to Jewish Palestinians along the Turkish border. Along the way, he meets Rachel, the beguiling daughter of a prominent Jewish family in Cairo; their romance is complicated by the family’s close friendship with Major Silbur, to whom Neuman serves as a valet. Between 2008 and 2011, Neuman’s grandson, John, devotes himself to tracking down a book that Neuman apparently wrote while he was a soldier. John’s quest leads him to dramatic revelations about his grandfather’s espionage career. Yanowitz delivers an enthralling personal drama nested inside a grand historical narrative. However, the novel’s excessively earnest dialogue sometimes slows the action; at one point, Neuman mawkishly expresses his grief: “Why you? I vow I will make your death worthwhile.” That said, John’s search for his grandfather’s book adds to the drama, deftly contributing factual detail along the way.
A poignant, if sometimes cloying, marriage of wartime fiction and fact.