Behrens (The O’Briens, 2011, etc.) again casts his searching eye over the interaction of history and personal destiny, following two families from Edwardian England to Nazi Germany.
Billy Lange and Karin Weinbrenner are born a year apart on the Isle of Wight, at the summer home maintained year-round by Billy’s parents for Karin’s wealthy German-Jewish father. This accident of geography gives Billy and Karin British passports and a means of escape when, three decades later, they are lovers in Germany watching with horrified disbelief as the Nazis make racist street violence an everyday event. Billy’s narrative of that grim year, 1938, begins immediately following his account of his birth and alternates with the chronicle of his deepening relationship with Karin as the two grow up. Their idyllic childhood is shattered by World War I. Billy’s father, the son of a German sea captain, is arrested as a spy and interned, then deported in 1919. Behrens quietly makes the point that brutality and xenophobia are regrettably universal human traits, though their manifestation in Nazi thugs is more apocalyptic than the routine cruelty of British bureaucrats. Baron von Weinbrenner, his Isle of Wight residence now confiscated, provides refuge and employment for the Langes at his estate outside Frankfurt. Behrens’ sensitive insights into the human heart are evident in his characterizations. The baron, an old-school patriot who insists to the end that “Germany was his country, not [the Nazis’],” is particularly poignant, but Billy’s stinging self-portrait of an honorable man not quite brave enough to raise his voice against the growing madness is also powerful and disturbing. Regrettably, free-spirited Karin is more schematic, as is the uninteresting obsession with the Winnetou novels of Karl May that takes her and Billy to wintry New Mexico for a denouement that feels overly staged, though unquestionably sad.
There’s no doubt about Behrens’ talent, but the tragic romance at the novel’s center doesn't equal the power of his sobering meditations on the fragility of human decency.