This final installment of a historical fiction trilogy chronicles the travails of a family uprooted from its Czech home during World War II.
In 1940, Sophie Kohut’s predicament is grim. Having fled Prague, she now lives in London with her 4-year-old son, Pavel, under the constant threat of German air raids. In addition, she’s at perpetual loggerheads with her in-laws, with whom she lodges, Emil and Judit, well-intentioned but also imperious, intrusive, and endlessly judgmental. Meanwhile, Sophie’s husband, Willy, a soldier in the Czechoslovak Army-in-Exile, is stationed in Malpas. He is part of a group of “mutineers” disgruntled by their shameful mistreatment—especially Jews, like Willy, who are ostracized by the British-recognized Czech president, Edvard Beneš. The London Blitz only grows worse, and as a consequence, Emil turns to family friend George Kindell to help him relocate the Kohuts to safer territory. George agrees to orchestrate their flight to Cambridge and even promises to help Willy join the British army, but only if he will vigilantly gather information on Communist sympathizers in his ranks, especially one particularly brutal sort, Leopold Povídka. The family members are ultimately scattered despite their best efforts to remain together—Willy to serve in the British Royal Engineers, Sophie to run a cafe, and young Pavel to live with other children out in the country under the hateful tutelage of his custodian, Mrs. McAlistair. Curtis (Café Budapest, 2018, etc.) magisterially captures the toll war inevitably takes on even the strongest families, a lesson powerfully expressed by Sophie when her frustration with her disapproving in-laws reaches a tipping point: “I admit I’ve changed—just like you. I’m no longer obedient or perfectly behaved—but Willy, Pavel, and I survived. Nazis, hunger, fear, not knowing what to do next.” In addition, Pavel’s callow naiveté supplies a unique roost from which to view human degradation. Like the protagonist in Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness, he’s totally unencumbered by ideology or historical identity and so experiences his suffering from a perch of unvarnished innocence. Curtis continues to artfully braid literary poignancy with potent historical witness in this achingly realistic tale.
A heartbreakingly beautiful drama about the wages of survival.