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Review: Devastation Road, by Jason Hewitt
Little, Brown, 2015. 379 pp. $20

In spring 1945, an injured man wakes in a field. He’s got only the vaguest idea of who he is–he’s English, and his name is Owen–but he’s wearing clothes that don’t fit, he can’t remember how he got hurt, why he’s where he is, how he got there, or where there is, except that it must be Europe. To judge from what he sees, it must be Central Europe, but he can’t tell what country.

Marshal Konev leads the Red Army into Prague, May 1945 (courtesy Karel Hájek, via Wikimedia Commons)

A Czech boy, Janek, who speaks barely a word of English, adopts him and claims to have rescued him, but Owen’s not sure of that, and, to some extent, resents how Janek sticks to him like glue. But the boy is useful, scrounging food and keeping a keen eye out for dangers that Owen might otherwise blunder into. Through Janek, Owen also learns that there’s a war on, and he slowly realizes that he’s played a part in it, and what that part is. Eventually, they meet a Polish woman, Irena, who attaches herself to them, though each has a different aim. Owen wants to go home. Janek insists he must find his brother, Petr, a Resistance hero. Irena, whose head has been shaved, says that she just wants to be safe–it’s hard for a Jew, she says–but you get the idea that she wants someone to take care of her, and Owen, as an Englishman, is the obvious choice.

I like the way Hewitt pieces together his narrative, showing how Owen gradually realizes who he is, memories triggered by a button, a phrase on a scrap of paper, a facial expression, or how light looks. As images return to him of his former employment as a draftsman for an aircraft manufacturer; his older brother, Max; their parents; and Max’s fiancée, the reader senses that Owen’s disorientation isn’t just post-traumatic stress. He’s also suppressing certain memories out of guilt.

To weld these disparate fragments into a coherent narrative takes great skill, and nearly all Hewitt’s transitions between past and present meld seamlessly. His descriptions, based on apparently thorough research, effortlessly depict the era and the settings. Further, he conveys Owen’s fluid, ever-varying states of mind with authority:

It was not that he was lost that concerned him most. Nor was it that he had found himself in a war that he remembered so little about, which now seemed to be consuming everything and everyone within it. Nor was it that he had ended up in an obscure country that in the past had been nothing more than a strange name in the news broadcasts, or, even, that somehow he seemed to have wiped several years from his mind. No, what concerned him most was that things he now knew for sure–and knew that he knew–could suddenly be lost again, and then found, and lost once more, as if they had never been there in the first place.

Despite these attributes, rendered in lucidly beautiful prose, Devastation Road presents quite a few obstacles. Chief among them is how irritating all three main characters are. Owen seems too earnest, even clueless, to be a survivor, and it’s hard to believe he was involved in the war, because he lacks the necessary guile or instinct that warriors must possess if they’re to overcome the inevitable setbacks they face. Janek is too much the entitled teenager for my taste, as if he too hasn’t reckoned with or been leveled by the war, even though he grew up in it. He evokes flickers of sympathy, yet the narrative grabs most when he’s not involved. Irena’s truly appalling, selfish as the day is long, and it’s pretty obvious she’s lying about something. What has happened to her is both awful and painful, sure, and even holds the potential for tragedy, but that side feels too mechanical and distant, so that her grasping nature overshadows the rest.

Devastation Road works best, I think, as a study of one man’s psychology, the story of his unfolding, tricky memory. If you can hold onto that, the novel will be worth your time.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.