The story is about Kate, an English nurse, who marries a German doctor just before World War I. The climate not being very good for Germans in England at the time, they leave and take up duty with the German army in a field hospital in Poland and Ukraine. Here is where the book starts and we follow the two of them during their travels back to Germany and the terrible times after the war. Inflation was high and every day was a fight just to find something to eat. We are in 1919.
Here the story switches to London in 1944 and we meet Claus, or Charles, a German/Irish/American living in London, working as a warden and patrolling the streets at night. During the day he has a government job in a cultural unit. What he really wants to do, is to make films. He seems also to have another job, as a spy. But for whom? The British? The Germans? Both?
One day he meets Kate, who is now back in England. They fall in love but it is complicated. She has been married to a German, speaks German fluently, and with whom is her loyalty? Do you have to have a loyalty somewhere? Can't you be loyal to two sides?
He let the comment about Americans go; his lineage was too complicated to explain. BUt he wanted to sting her too. ”You seem to have escaped the suffering.” he said.This is a very good novel in many aspects. Well written and well told. Sometimes maybe a little bit too many and long parts on the thoughts of Claus, but, at the same time, they give structure to the book and the overall message: There are no winners in a war, only losers.
Her face changed. ”You’re quite wrong there. I survived, but I never escaped.”
The sufferings come out very well. Connected with our main protagonists it makes it so more real and we can feel with them, whether they are happy or sad.
”I can’t go back to what I was,” she’d said. ”That’s always been the case. After Horst died, I couldn’t inhabit my old life in Germany of my previous one in England, so I tried to make a new one in France. That didn’t work, so history washed me up here once again. I won’t go forward pretending that the past hasn’t happened, but I don’t want to dwell on it either.”They are two lost persons who meet each other, fall in love and realise, with their different backgrounds, that life is not always easy to either live or describe.
”All of this had come out in bits and pieces on a long walk, and even now he wasn’t sure he had it properly ordered, as he never felt he could ask too much, nor did it help that she described some of it in German as her German was a dialect he had trouble understanding at times. Still, switching to German made sense. Putting it in another language was a way to put it in another life.”As J.P. Hartley says at the start of his novel ”The Go-Between”: The past is another country, they do things differently there. Some things can only be told and understood in your own language. A translation looses some things on the way. Kate and Claus could communicate both in English and German and switched as seemed appropriate at the time and depending on the subject.
What I really liked about this book is that it does not take sides. For all sides in a war it is terrible, and Griner keeps his story focused on the people, and I think that is why it comes out as a very personal story, as story that we all can understand and be compassionate about. We don’t take sides. The love affaire is the centre of things and we just have to live with all the complications around.
The end is very surprising. However, thinking about it for some time, maybe this was the only possible ending. A highly recommended read, which lingers with you and make you think about the higher values in life, and how small our possibility is to influence the world around us.