Rhidian Brook’s novel, The Aftermath, is an engaging journey, driven by emotionally charged characters drawn from a fascinating and seldom explored period of history, the immediate aftermath of World War II in Germany. The book is not set in the familiar terrain of the Cold War, once “De-Nazification” has absorbed and absolved the guilty and guiltless alike among the German population, and propelled them into the atomic age of espionage drama. This story unfolds in British Zone of Occupation, in a time when the bombed-out cities are still smoldering, and when the defeated Germans and their former enemies in the west, still maintain a loathing suspicion of each other’s motives, that can easily cross the line into full-bore hatred.
The novel is organized as a kind of ensemble piece, and orbits around the lives of a modest, and empathetic British officer, Col. Lewis Morgan, his grief-stricken wife, Rachel, and their surviving teen-aged son, Edmund. Lewis (he’s referred to throughout by his given name) has been appointed to head the military district that includes Hamburg, the city most famous for being firebombed into ashes by the Royal Air Force. But he is an exception among the brass of the occupying forces, in that his personal goal is to build bridges between old enemies rather than punish the guilty (this in a land where the notion of Collective Guilt is in force to include an entire population.) The winter is frigid. The Germans are starving and without heat, and a bankrupt Britain, barely able to feed its own people back home, has little cash to spend on feeding and sheltering a beaten enemy. Meanwhile, the upper echelons of British occupation are helping themselves to the booty left behind in their requisitioned houses (“crammed tea chests” full of precious Meissen and other booty shipped back across the Channel.) Lewis, therefore, has shocked his fellow officers, by inviting the former owner of the estate that has been requisitioned as his new residence, to share the house with his family. The former owner is Herr Lubert, a German architect, whom we readers are intended to like immediately, and do. In fact, we are intended to like almost everyone in this novel immediately, and often do. Lewis’s wife, whose grief over the loss of her first-born during the war has estranged her from both her husband and her younger son; Edmund (the second son) who is a gentle, thoughtful and affectionate young boy, whom we fear for in this cruel environment, and the gang of orphaned German children (“Trümmerkinder” or “Children of the Rubble) who prowl the broken landscape like feral pups, desperate, hungry, canny, innocent and sometimes vicious. We are allowed to like them all and feel the angst of their plight. Even Lubert’s daughter, Freda, who is still clinging to her Hitler Youth training in the Bund Mädel, can be forgiven her hatred of the new masters of the house. After all, her mother was lost in the firestorm that incinerated tens of thousands in a superheated hurricane purposely ignited by the RAF incendiary bombing (a true event, code-named “Operation Gomorrah” by Bomber Command.) The only character we are permitted to dislike in a thoroughgoing fashion is the Brit intelligence officer, Burnham, who is a smug, wolfish inquisitor, bent on rooting out evil in every German heart. Burnham is perhaps the least well-developed character of the lot. We know that he has been “deeply affected by the pictures of the camps,” but it’s never explained to us why he is so deeply affected, while, well, nobody else seems to be so.
In general, though, Brooks is compelling in his cast of characters. Each possesses many foibles and endearments, which clash with a genuine ring, and the author is deftly expert at creating a realistic post-war landscape. The plot is fluid and flows as naturally as the river Elbe flows past the old Lubert manor. It is also quite restrained. I sometimes thought that the author had imposed a kind of prohibition against upheaval on the book as I rambled contentedly through the pages, so that when upheaval suddenly erupted, it was an even greater shock.
If I must voice a criticism, it is perhaps a personal one. I don’t want to risk divulging too much by going into a detailed description of the book’s climax, so suffice to say that, quite honestly, I expected more mayhem to crack open at the end of the book. I even thought I had spotted a set-up for mayhem (emotional and otherwise), which simply didn’t materialize. But that’s how I write, so perhaps I shouldn’t hold other authors to my expectations. If, however, one would to argue that some characters got off too easily, I probably wouldn’t argue back. In any case, the book is well worth the trip. And you don’t have to be an expert on the time period or the history to enjoy it as much as I did.