Review: The Aftermath, by Rhidian Brook
Knopf, 2013. 267 pp. $26
Brook starts with a terrific premise and mines its thematic possibilities with skill. It’s 1946, and Col. Lewis Morgan, a decorated career officer, has been posted to Hamburg to govern its British zone. His wife, Rachael, and their thirteen-year-old son join him there, occupying a splendid house, one of the few left standing in that shattered city. But hanging over their long-awaited reunion is the memory of the Morgans’ elder son, killed in a German bombing raid. Rachael has never recovered and seems not to want to; Lew pushes his grief aside, throwing himself into his all-consuming job, earning German trust while helping the defeated enemy rebuild.
Scorning the rules against fraternizing with civilians, Morgan invites the Lubert family living in the house, father and daughter, to remain. The place is large enough, and Lew’s convinced the Luberts weren’t Nazis, so why create another homeless family? But Rachael is furious. Share living space with the people who killed her boy?
Meanwhile, Lew tries to govern with a light hand, dispensing kindness and common sense. But much of the job involves identifying those civilians who belonged to the secret police or were otherwise tainted, an exceptionally difficult task, for which his subordinates think he’s much too trusting. Like Rachael, they assume everyone’s guilty, so that Lew faces unrest at headquarters as well as at home. Every scene asks who’s to blame: If it’s not the woman who kept company with a Nazi bigwig, the starving children who thieve to stay alive, or the factory workers spreading dissension, then who? And is every death equivalent, or does that of Rachael’s boy really matter less or more than anyone else’s?
I wish The Aftermath had stayed with these absorbing questions, to which reason and feeling sometimes offer conflicting answers. However, the novel betrays its characters, and the only reason I can see is to pursue an even larger theme, redemption, capital R. To explain, I’ll have to reveal (sorry) what most readers will probably guess from the jacket flap, if not the situation: Rachael winds up in Lubert’s arms. The encounters are so passionate and satisfying, the two former enemies enact their own forgiveness and dream of a new life together.
Hold on. Lew’s a maddeningly distant husband–no argument there–more so because he’s off acting like a saint at work. This feels true to life; somebody’s got to pay for all that goodness. But we never see why he’s emotionally absent, and Rachael never asks. Since he wasn’t always withdrawn, maybe his wartime service changed him. And since they’ve spent almost the entire war apart, except for their boy’s funeral, maybe she might try to draw him out, especially given his reticence. But Rachael doesn’t talk at all, while expecting him to help her, somehow. But of course he doesn’t, so after a few months of painful, uneasy silence, she betrays him, which feels rather quick, as if she’d already given up on him before she arrived in Hamburg. I find it hard to sympathize with her. Or either of them, actually.
Then again, few of these relationships make psychological sense to me. Rachael’s grief is such that she neglects her surviving son–okay–but the boy somehow never catches on that his mother prefers his dead brother. Seems to me he’d try harder to get her attention. Brook also undercuts his hero by setting a cardboard villain against him–Major Burnham, the intelligence officer who hates all Germans, is even nastier drunk than sober, and corrupt, besides. The author would have done much better to switch his character with Lew’s, while keeping their politics intact. That would have added depth to both while giving Rachael more grounds to take up with Lubert.
And what a guy Lubert is, repaying Lew’s kindness by cuckolding him and, with lip service to guilt, acting as if Lew deserves it. Like Rachael, he’s a clueless parent, thinking his fifteen-year-old daughter merely rebellious and angry when she’s plainly disturbed. It’s hard to pull for him, either, so the redemptive love is hardly that, and by this time, the reader’s looking for help.
Much happens in The Aftermath that’s worth thinking about. But the characters seem to exist only in the moment, and the end wraps up loose ends all too quickly.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.