OMG this is a bleak book.
Peter Faber, German soldier in World War II, enters into a marriage of convenience with Katharina Spinell; he for a few weeks of leave and she for the prospect of a widows’ pension should her new husband die in battle. The two strangers get over the initial tension to enjoy a time of relative peace and comfort, before Peter is sent back to Russia, and ultimately Stalingrad, and conditions dramatically worsen for both of them.
It’s involving, and for a couple of hours I was totally drawn into this world of cold, hunger and survival. Afterwards, as I was walking round the supermarket, I was amazed that people were nonchalantly wandering round obtaining food and being warm. I drove to the athletics track to pick up LD#2 and as I waited, I was equally amazed to witness well fed people enjoying the luxury of running round and round to improve their health.
The still sentient part of me that hasn’t been pulverised into oblivion is just about together enough to make some observations:
– The atmospheres felt very authentic and well researched, both in Berlin, where Katharina’s family pandered to the desires of the Nazi ruling classes, and on the front, where the soldiers increasingly fell victim to the ruling classes’ blindness to the human cost of war.
– The authenticity was shaped by the little details, such as the eleven women queuing anxiously for only eight geese in the butcher’s at Christmas.
– There’s a powerful “odd couple” relationship between Faber and his half-Russian comrade Faustmann. They hate each other so much at first that shots are fired (not at each other, but that’s its own, brain searing story), but the relationship comes to an end touchingly and memorably.
– There’s always a fine balance in a harrowing book as to how far to push the reader. I reached my limit about 3/4 of the way in, and skim read my way to the end. It got unremittingly worse and worse. However, the thing that kept me reading was the main characters’ determination to survive.
The book is about people’s ability to survive, and the ways people cope with trauma to keep going. There is a glimmer of optimism about finding hope in the bleakest of situations; however, I haven’t felt this emotionally drained by a book for a while. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good. Really good. But… challenging. Not for everyone.
I am now going off to drink heavily and lie down.