Two German friends who fought together in World War I return to countries dramatically transformed in this novel.
Markus Mathais and Solomon Levi served together for years in German East Africa during World War I. But in 1919, both can finally return home, Levi to his family estate outside of Munich, and Markus to his father-in-law’s ranch in South West Africa, now under British rule largely inhospitable to Germans. In advance of Markus’ reunion with his family, a South African officer, Capt. Llewellyn, billeted in Markus’ home for years in his absence, brutally rapes his wife, Helena, and in the process is killed by the stable boy Sambolo. Helena’s family, the Conrads, decides to bury the body in the desert and keep the incident a secret, even from Markus. But the authorities suspect the Conrads of foul play and launch an investigation into the matter, a scrutiny that only intensifies after Markus is blamed for an explosion at work and is considered a suspect in another blast that kills a military officer responsible for the death of Helena’s brother, Norbert. The drama’s complications continue to pile up: Markus leaves town to escape what seems like a politically motivated witch hunt while the Conrads fend off aggressive attempts to confiscate their land. Meanwhile, Levi finds his native Germany pinched by economic straits and roiled by internal political disputes that pave the way for Hitler’s rise to power. This is the third installment of a series by Soellner (The Storm That Shook the World, 2016, etc.). While it’s certainly helpful to read the novel’s predecessors, it’s not necessary. The author’s knowledge of the historical era is impressive, and the plot races at a frenetic pace. But the story is melodramatically extravagant to an almost comical degree, and the author often stops to list the calamities that have befallen Markus’ family to ensure readers remain aware of their enormity. (At one point, Helena’s father muses: “I lost Arnold to the war, I lost Norbert to that murderer Perkins, Humboldt to that terrible disease, and my poor Helena was attacked by Llewellyn…Markus came back scarred by war, accused of terrible crimes, and now he and Helena flee to another country.”) In addition, the breathlessly hyperbolic dialogue seems lifted from a television soap opera.
A historically astute but dramatically overwrought period piece.