That is how I came to buy my copy of this well-received novel by Kate Furnivall, for just £0.99. It has a similar theme to ‘Ludwika’, the last book I read and reviewed, and is set in the same countries, and the same time period too. This gave me an opportunity to compare the two books very closely, both fresh in my mind.
At 448 pages, it is a long read, and feels like a saga, despite covering a relatively short period immediately after WW2. The reason for this is that much of the story is told in flashback, looking at how past events during the German occupation of Poland changed the lives of some of the main characters in the book.
We begin by following the harassed Klara, as she flees the Soviets who have taken control of her country. As a former resistance fighter, she fears for her safety under the new regime, and accompanied by her 10 year-old daughter, she is making the arduous trek West, hoping to eventually get to distant relatives in England. The journey is fraught with danger, as roving bands of displaced people are prepared to kill anyone for valuables, or food. But Klara has learned her lessons well in adversity, and manages to get her and her daughter to the safety of a displaced persons camp in West Germany, run by a sympathetic British commander.
After that, we read of her life in the camp, managing to survive against the odds, making friends, stealing and conniving, and always looking to get permission to head for England, and the home of her relative. Everything leading up to that point is told in flashback. How she was caught working for the Polish Resistance, tortured, and eventually handed over to a high-ranking SS officer, to be his sexual plaything. With her daughter removed to a convent, Klara never gives up hope of reuniting with her, and does what she has to do, to keep on the side of her German oppressors.
The arrival in the camp of an old German adversary threatens to expose her past, and Klara has to learn to deal with his threats, recruiting some kindly camp inmates to help her, and using the small group of feral children she has accumulated too. After this point, the novel turns into a thriller, as we wonder if she will outsmart the man, and manage to achieve her dream of a new life in England with her daughter.
Descriptions of the camp life, the privations endured, and the catastrophic damage to the surrounding German towns and cities give us some idea of the difficulties faced by our characters. Details feel authentic, and the various people in the life of Klara are brought to life by good writing that allows us to imagine their scenes. But some of those encountered do feel stereotypical at times, especially the ruthless former SS commander, and the ‘kindly’ British Camp overseer.
And for me, the ending was too neat. Too ‘nice’, and felt wrapped up like a parcel to satisfy the reader.
Otherwise, it is a very competent historical novel, with characters you want to follow, and situations that are convincing and believable.