In Rhidian Brook‘s stunning post World War II novel, The Aftermath, English Colonel Lewis Morgan is tasked with reinvigorating Hamburg and the surrounding territory while also determining the degrees of guilt or innocent of the population and ensuring the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. While carrying out his duties, Lewis is reunited with his wife Rachael and son Edmund, who come to him after a separation of several years, with a brief exception for Lewis to attend the funeral of his eldest son. Allied officers are housed in the residences off the wealthy Germans, while they are re-homed in camps. Faced with evicting the family living in the mansion that has been chosen for him Lewis, without consulting his wife, decides that the two families will share the spacious home. Inevitably, tensions arise as the families try to cope with the new living situations and their own precarious relationships.
It’s easy to be wary of World War II novels. It’s a period that lends itself to dramatization, and it’s easy to feel as if you’ve read certain stories before. At this point, I am pretty selective about the ones I choose to read, but I am willing to take a chance on the novels that I think will offer up a different perspective. The Aftermath caught my attention for that reason. Brook writes eloquently about the devastation of the country, pride and livelihoods of the people, many of whom were near starving in camps. Edmund is befriended by a group of boys who have no one but each other, his German teacher arrives thin, hungry and worried that he will be convicted of crimes greater than the ones he has committed. Throughout the novel questions and degrees of guilt are explored with few satisfactory answers. How can you tell who is good just by appearances? Whom can you trust?
Brook weaves all of these issues seamlessly into this tapestry of family, homecomings, love, redemption and loss. Lewis and Rachael’s uncomfortable relationship and loss of each other, and their failed attempts at regaining a semblance of former intimacy form shape the novel, along with Herr Lubert’s mourning his wife, anger at his reduced circumstances, and lack of control over rebellious Freda. Brook masterfully build impalpable tension as the families struggle to achieve civility toward each other in the face of suspicion, stereotypes, and class tension. Lewis’s ability to have compassion for the community he serves, but being unable to extend that same thoughtfulness and courtesy to his family is thoughtfully explored over the course of the story. There were so many powder kegs that I expected to explode during the course of the novel, but each situation comes to a head in ways that were satisfying, and mostly, surprising. The Aftermath is a wonderful novel – rich in historical detail, impressive in its analysis of the subtle contradictions of human frailty and strength, and a fine example of engaging and compelling storytelling. Highly recommended.