Individuals of Hungarian, Sri Lankan and English descents cross paths in Alles-Crouch’s debut novel.
Beginning with a brief look in Sri Lanka at the lives of Englishman Robert Cross, his Hungarian wife, Erzsike, and their daughter, Beya, the book then quickly flashes back to World War II. In Hungary, young Erzsike, the daughter of affectionate parents, enjoys a life rich in tradition and compassion for others; her family even hides a Jewish professor from the Germans. Robert, born in London to a loving mother and a stern father with an iron fist, later moves with his family to Canada. World War II begins, and Robert goes to war at 18, displaying leadership qualities throughout his distinguished military service. Urged by friend and lover Rudi, Erzsike reluctantly flees her homeland and the barbarism of the Russians during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. In 1945 in Ceylon, Harriet Meedeniya is captivated when she first lays eyes on Cyril Alvis, private secretary to the inspector of police whom Robert met during the war. They marry and have children, including fair-skinned Prema, an intelligent, resourceful boy eager to escape his ritualistically abusive father. Alles-Crouch’s novel is a timely reminder that revolution is not new, and it comes at a price. The tale is mostly well-told, with various plotlines neatly integrated, although an occasional passage seems out of place. The story spans decades without the feel of an epic sweep; despite war and revolution being factors, this isn’t historical fiction. The primary focus is on individuals of differing ethnic backgrounds, their reactions to circumstances beyond their control and their efforts to successfully adjust to a foreign culture. Robert admires Erzsike’s struggle to survive, yet after their marriage, she feels pressured to be more English, even changing her name to Elizabeth. The once–love-struck Harriet, inextricably linked to a wife-beating husband who nearly kills her, eventually finds life meaningless. Readers won’t be able to help but root for resilient Prema, who, unlike his mother, retains his humanity in the face of savagery, humiliation and neglect. Like smoke from a fire, he rises.
An engaging, if not absorbing, story of cultural adaptation, with sympathetic characters and ample historical detail.