The Soldier's Story by Bryan Forbes
|The Soldier's Story by Bryan Forbes|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A touching, thought provoking and beautifully told story examining the nature of guilt and conscience against a well-researched rendition of post-WWII Germany.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 296||Date: October 2012|
|Publisher: Quartet Books|
Alex Seaton awaits his post-war demob from the British army in Germany while tracking down wrong-doers ranging from allied black-marketeers to Nazi war criminals. Although fraternisation with locals is still frowned on, Alex meets and befriends university lecturer Professor Grundwall after a chance meeting. United by their love of books, Alex becomes a regular visitor to the Professor's home. However books aren't the only attraction: Alex gradually falls in love with the Professor's daughter, Lisa. Their future together seems assured until Alex uncovers a secret that will rip to the core of Alex's loyalties and jeopardise more than just their love.
I'm ashamed. The reason? I grew up knowing about and enjoying Bryan Forbes the accomplished actor (as in The Colditz Story), the talented film director (as in Whistle Down the Wind) and the movie producer (as in The Railway Children) but never realised that he also wrote. With 17 previous fiction and non-fiction works to his name, you'd have thought I'd have noticed wouldn't you? After reading The Soldier's Story I realise the (huge) loss has been all mine.
This is a novel boasting a dual accomplishment. Firstly it brings history alive. Through CSM Alex Seaton's own narrative Bryan Forbes graphically demonstrates that the world's peace clock wasn't reset at the armistice and that the world couldn't return to normal once the paperwork was signed. We know the outline of the historical picture before us but the author graphically colours in the detail. Whilst feeling for the suffering of the ordinary German as they fight to retain their humanity despite hunger and devastation, we also witness the Nuremberg war trials. Then, continuing further, Alex goes from being intelligence officer to spy as the Cold War is born, facing discrimination of his own along the way.
Bryan Forbes has also captured the emotion be it hidden (e.g. that of Alex as he realises that spies are expendable) or overt as in the case of the German civilians herded into cinemas to be shown Nazi death camps for the first time. There's also emotion in Alex's and Lisa's love story, as you'd expect, but it isn't 'soppy' making this a story that doesn't alienate its male or female readership.
The second accomplishment is that beneath the enthralling story is an equally fascinating undercurrent about the complexity of guilt. Who are the guilty… the Nazis? Even those for whom the alternative to obedience was death? Did the allies therefore have a blameless war or were our atrocities deleted by our victory? We're shown without doubt that when it comes to armed conflict, facing oneself afterwards can be as difficult for the victor as it is for the vanquished.
The subject matter may be strident and brutally violent (definitely not for children) but the tone is one of calm and almost gentle objectivity. The horror is even starker because it's not force-fed to us. It's there and it happened and that's enough for us to be grasped by images that refuse to let go.
Alex is perfectly believable as a man just wanting to emerge from the conflict but being dragged further in by events and expectations. He veers between undying love and professional detachment but, as you'll see, this is necessary as well as plausible. Lisa lacks confidence and has remained child-like in some ways due to her family's protectiveness.
At one stage the last three chapters seemed a bit superfluous, however, on practically the last page their reason becomes apparent. Then I realised that I should trust Bryan Forbes as he really does know what he's doing. In fact, Graham Greene was right: Mr F is indeed staggeringly gifted.
A special thank you to Quartet Books for sending us a copy of this book for review.
If you would like to read more about the Second World War and its effects, we heartily recommend Trieste by Dasa Drndic and Ellen Elias-Bursac (translator)
You can read more book reviews or buy The Soldier's Story by Bryan Forbes at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Soldier's Story by Bryan Forbes at Amazon.com.
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