If 1945 saw the invention of curried sausage in Hamburg, then 1946 saw the British occupation overseeing denazification and the establishment of post-war administration in its allocated area. Not an easy task, for it is generally accepted that in the post-war carve up of German, France got the wine, America got the scenery, Russia got the lion’s share (and farmland), while Britain got the ruins.
Fair’s fair you might say as Britain was tasked to clean up the areas devastated by British bombs – no more so than in Hamburg. Let’s be more specific there – the working-class areas of Hamburg. A cynical, though perhaps valid, point is made – I forget whether it’s in Rhydian Brook’s novel or in Cay Rademacher’s The Murderer in Ruins (which I read straight afterwards) – that the British ensured that the beautiful villas on the Elbchausee remained untouched, so that they could requisition them for their officers once the war was won.
This requisitioning of the villas on the Elbe is the foundation on which Brook builds his novel, though the British officer to which Stefan Lubert’s villa is allocated is no ordinary army officer. Colonel Lewis Morgan is uncomfortable with the high-handedness of Army Command and makes an original proposition – that Lubert and his daughter stay in the villa in the rooms above the grand rooms that his own family will occupy.
He makes the decision unilaterally. It’s a surprise for his wife when she arrives on German shores with their youngest son, Edmund. Given that she is still mourning the death of their eldest, killed when their home in Milford Haven was bombed … you can imagine her reaction!
Emotions run high on the German side too, for Lubert lost his wife in the fire-bombing of Hamburg, and his teenage daughter, Freda, is going off the rails. While the adults attempt to deal rationally with the situation, Freda remains hostile. She represents a severe threat to Morgan’s younger son, Edmund, naïve, trusting, inheritor of his father’s golden heart.
Both children become involved with the Trümmelkinder – orphans and displaced kids, living amongst the ruins, and requisitioning the odd empty villa themselves. Most seeking only to scavenge enough to keep themselves alive, though older ones, wishing for vengeance, are plotting against the occupiers. Enter Albert ….
Can there ever be a healing for these traumatised folk? A true rapprochement not only between former enemies, but also between husband and wife, now grown apart after an enforced separation of 4 years? Will Captain Morgan’s generosity be repaid in kind, or is betrayal in these circumstances the only expectation?
I would say this novel is an absorbing personal drama rather than historical fiction. Sufficient background information is provided to provide context, texture and motivation, but it’s not the main focus and so the novel is never weighed down by it. The consequences of Captain Morgan’s actions are what drive the novel forward; his generosity implausible you might think, but actually it is that of the author’s grandfather. This was the starting point for the novel, and in the afterword Brook makes clear that the rest of the story, including the dirty linen, is his own invention. Just as well!