It is in 1947 London that Patricia Wastvedt opens her latest novel, The German Boy, with Stefan Landau, “this white-skinned, bruise-eyed German”, landing in Dover and journeying to London to be met by his aunt, Elisabeth, the sister of Stefan’s English mother, Karen.
Elisabeth is apprehensive at the arrival of this near-stranger, and for good reason – 16-year-old Stefan, enigmatic, taciturn and only recently freed from the Hitler Youth’s death grip, can barely hide his disdain for his English relatives, the only family he still has. In this, he is very much his father’s son, and the story of what became of his Fuhrer-loving parents in Nazi Germany is just one of the narrative pearls Wastvedt plants for her reader to prise out as they make their way through this rich, absorbing novel.
Stefan remains oblivious to the (perhaps typical) messiness of his family’s evolution since the end of the First World War, but the more fortunate reader has the pleasure of returning, from this opening, to 1927. Here is introduced the novel’s pivotal character, a young artist named Michael Ross, who will become both subject and cause of sisterly obsession and the estrangement of Karen and Elisabeth.
Michael’s family is damaged in a way not unusual for the time: his father Albert was severely disabled in a 1917 mustard attack in France and is cared for by Michael’s mother Vera. Michael’s Jewish ancestry, though it’s of no consequence to the Rosses or their acquaintances, will become a matter of great import later in the story, when Karen (whom, he met, along with Elisabeth, through his sister Rachel in their school years) introduces him to her thoroughly propagandized German husband.
The beastly Artur Landau is a well-drawn, grim echo of the many willing servants of the Third Reich. Karen is in love with him and is thrilled to give birth to their son, but their marriage is one of convenience (not least because, by this reviewer’s reading, Awful Artur doesn’t bat for Karen’s team). As menacing as the Fuhrer himself, Artur’s actions catalyze much of the fast-moving second half of the story, which leaps from the early 1930s and the establishment of Nazi Germany to 1947, following the divergence of Karen and Elisabeth’s familial paths. These passages, crafted with imagination and empathy, make The German Boy an historical novel that is a cut above the rest.
Wastvedt demonstrates a remarkable knack for evoking the many small kindnesses and unexpected fellowships that bolstered the bruised survivors of two unholy wars. One character, striking up a conversation with a night porter at a train station one chilly evening, ends up giving the virtual stranger 20 acres of land he owns in the Romney Marsh.
Years later that kind man becomes Elisabeth’s husband, and we can see that event owes more to her recognition of her need for his goodness than to romantic love. But this is Wastvedt’s point – there is no horror in the mundanity of the everyday, when you have seen the alternatives.
Previously reviewed on Coast FM
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones