Germany in the immediate aftermath of World War Two is a popular setting for contemporary novels written in English. On this site, I have recently reviewed two others: Joseph Kanon's The Good German and Ben Fergusson's The Spring of Kasper Meier. This book is another one. There must be others and already enough for a Compare and Contrast MA dissertation.
I began with a prejudice against this book. The author is described as a "regular contributor" to BBC's radio "Thought for the Day" which in the days when I listened to radio was an Establishment platform for unctuous religiosity. Oh dear, I thought, I hope that's not what I'm in for with this novel.
Fortunately, I wasn't, though my suspicions returned when I got to the last of the author's "Acknowledgments". All novelists have to have these nowadays - younger writers think it means providing a list of their Likes - and Rhidian Brook ends his own with an acknowledgment to "The Author of All Things".
Finger down throat.
The novel maintains a well-structured pace and I didn't at any point want to give up on it. The pace quickens at the end but the end itself could be found unsatisfactory: Brook resolves the situation of his main German characters, Stefan Lubert and his daughter Frieda but not that of his main English characters, Lewis, Rachael and their son Edmund who have been living in the requisitioned Lubert villa. It's left for us to imagine the outcome for them but it is such a big task that it feels like it's been dumped on the reader.
The strength of the novel is in the feeling of edginess which Brook creates in handling the relations between his main characters. Lewis-Rachael, Rachael - Lubert, Edmund-Frieda, Lewis-his colleagues, Edmund and the street orphans of Hamburg. You can imagine it done as a stage play with silences and exits.
All the characters are dealing with loss and it is their different responses to loss which the novel explores. The ending simply restores one of the losses, quite literally: Lubert's wife and Freida's mother, who they have believed dead in the 1943 Hamburg firestorm, turns out to be alive.
There are moments of unctuousness but his German orphans are constructed around their knowledge of English swearing, definitely not acquired from Thought for the Day.