An often intriguing novel about a young man growing up on the Isle of Man in the 1940s, in which World War II is at once distant and ever present.
In the beginning of Costain’s debut, Erik, the young narrator, stumbles through a familiar trifecta of school, church, and family, living a more or less unexceptional (but enjoyably written) childhood among the fellow residents of his island home. Among these semimythic figures are eccentric gossips, elderly Elizabethan remnants, and most notably, British soldiers. These troops are entrusted with guarding the continental prisoners held in Mooragh Internment Camp, which is located, somehow both prominently and unobtrusively, in Erik’s small hometown of Ramsey. Soon, Erik’s uneventful life takes a turn when he meets one of the prisoners there: Jacob Weiss, an Austrian Jew who fled the continent during Hitler’s rise. Although the novel gets off to a slow start, the narrative hits its stride once Erik meets Jacob and starts to learn his story, and the alternation between Erik’s everyday adventures on the Isle of Man and Jacob’s recollections of his continental past offers an effective, and moving, contrast. Throughout, Costain layers the novel with evocative historical details and oddities. For example, aside from occasional eruptions of violence, the war often remains quite far away: the only victim of German bombing on the Isle of Man, Erik writes, was “a small dead frog,” which was displayed, years later, in the Manx Museum as part of an exhibit on the island’s role in the war. For Jacob, on the other hand, the conflict keeps forcing its way into his life despite his best efforts: “We had all gone quietly to bed and were wakened to this nightmare in a country we thought we could trust; in a place we thought we were safe,” he remarks, reflecting on the shock of his sudden arrest and internment.
A convincing account of a forgotten injustice, given strangeness and power by its uncanny, incantatory World War II setting.