A man struggles to survive in World War II Czechoslovakia.
There's not much distinctive about former university history professor Viktor Trn when the Nazis invade his Czechoslovakian homeland in March 1939. Living with his wife, Alena, 6-year-old son, Aleks, and father-in-law, Miroslav, he becomes a mostly passive witness to terrible events, save for a brief time when he spies on the movement of German troop trains for the resistance before abandoning that work because he's convinced the Nazis are about to be defeated. In successive chapters, one for each year of the war (with an epilogue in 1948), the novel follows Viktor and his family as daily life inexorably deteriorates under German rule until 1945, when the country becomes the scene of intense fighting between Hitler's forces and the advancing Russian army. Apart from a glimpse of public executions in 1940 and passing references to the removal of the country's Jewish population, including one of Aleks' friends, to the nearby Terezín concentration camp, there's little real drama until the final 60 pages of the book, when Viktor flees a German forced labor crew and makes his way across the devastated countryside, seeking to reunite with his family. McConnell (A Picture Book of Hell and Other Landscapes, 2005) relies extensively on dialogue, but whether it's a conversation between Viktor and Aleks on a walk home from school or a conversation among a group of conscript laborers, much of it doesn't rise above the level of the mundane, failing either to advance the plot significantly or reveal much about the characters' inner lives. The novel also suffers from a fatal flaw: its unappealing protagonist. Other than a close relationship with his son and a couple of fitful affairs, Viktor is a man less actor than acted upon, making it hard to generate sympathy for his plight. As a result, the plot developments in the novel's concluding pages that might be moving in another work don't earn the emotional resonance the author clearly seeks here.
McConnell fails to produce much feeling for his characters or their predicament.