Rhidian Brook’s extraordinary new book, The Aftermath, is a disarmingly good piece of writing. Set in 1946 in Hamburg, a city virtually destroyed by allied bombing towards the end of the war. Orphans roam the rubble strewn streets and shelter in broken houses, work is spare, and a huge chunk of the population live in camps for displaced persons. Brook’s writing conjures the tragedies of a country brought to its knees. It seems almost unbelievable the way that war wipes out towns and cities and families – what happened to the people who survived? When do they stop going to work? What happens to the shops, shopkeepers; how do people, live, eat, sleep in this mess? And yet they did – as they do today, in cities that are being destroyed right now, Syria today, Yugoslavia twenty years ago.
Into this destroyed world come the allied forces – British, Russian, American - tasked with re-educating the German people, sorting out the country and getting it on its feet again. It is Colonel Lewis Morgan's job to oversee the rebuilding of Hamburg, and his staff have requisitioned a large house for him and his family – a wife and son on their way over from England – to live in. But instead of sentencing the house’s owner to camp life, Lewis makes a radical proposal: they should share the house, thus setting up a small, close-set reflection of the social and environmental tensions taking place in the country as a whole.
One of the biggest problems, as Brook quickly makes clear, is the tension and communication between the two ‘sides’ – the Germans and the Allies. Each stereotypes the other, making sweeping statements and criticisms: Germans “have little moral compass” (pg. 5); “the English may be uncultured” (pg. 13).
From a distance, with the perspective of time, this riles me. But of course, they are people who have just been through a terrible thing, and they are still in the midst of it, prejudiced by the horror, terror and monstrosity of how they have torn each other’s countries to pieces. It reminded me, actually, of the dystopia I like to read; trying to de-Nazify a population who have been trodden down by their regime, backed into corners and taught to think one way and one way only. It must have been a nightmare, trying to distinguish between those who were true Nazis and those who essentially had no choice but to toe the line. But then there is also the idea that the nation as a whole was responsible – that if you did not stand up against Hitler and his ideology then you were basically accepting it. As Herr Lubert, the owner of Colonel Morgan’s requisitioned house comments,
“He had performed his act of self-recollection – Besinnung – which all Germans had been encouraged to make as part of the process of acknowledging their part in the great crimes their nation had committed. He disliked the idea of collective guilt, but he was not one of those yesterday’s men who blamed the Allies for Germany’s current woes.” (pg. 157)
Into this world steps Morgan’s son Edmund and his wife Rachel, grieving for another son who died in a bombing, a woman who, like much of England, holds/held the Germans responsible for all the ills of the world, not least her son’s death. And now she must share a house with two of them, Lubert and his strange daughter Frieda, in turn grieving for a lost mother. Morgan soon shows himself as person who is not quick to judge – the simple idea of sharing the house with Germans a clear indicator of his temperament and attitude – but Rachel struggles to get Lubert to conform to the boundaries she wishes to lay. What consequences, exactly, will this unusual arrangement lead to? Can Lubert – and, especially, can Frieda, who has grown up knowing only Nazi rhetoric – be trusted?
It’s a fascinating topic. Brook examines it quietly, packing his pages with metaphor and tension, telling his story through lots of different eyes as he flips from side to side with his point of view – Colonel Morgan, Lubert, Rachel, Frieda, Edmund, and feral Ozi. Edmund, for instance, trying to build cred within a group of soldier’s sons on their way to Germany, builds a house of cards as he tells his war stories, only for it to collapse in perfect timing as an older boy in the group blows smoke – literally and metaphorically – on his tales.
The Aftermath’s trajectory takes all sorts of twists and turns, deception and betrayal not least among them, as Rachel, Morgan, Lubert and Frieda try to step their way into a future they either want to believe in or escape from, but what stands out for me – what, for me, is the bigger story – is the background setting, the political and the social tension that runs through everything that happens and makes the people the people they are. Perhaps it’s because I grew up with my parents’ war-associated stories, perhaps because it’s near and yet so far, but there’s something about WWII fiction that I find fascinating. In the privileged lifestyle I have today, it can be hard to imagine how it must have been to live through that turmoiled and tragedy-filled period. But what seems oft forgotten is that on VE day and VJ day, while the war was over the fight certainly wasn’t, and I’ll admit that I hadn’t much thought about how England, Germany, Europe – and everywhere else – got from that disaster zone to where we are today. Rhidian Brook's Aftermath summons this dark world with astonishing and devastating clarity.