As a young man working in Lubeck in 1938, with Germany already in thrall to the Nazis, Chris Dudok is irresistibly drawn to Julia, a light-footed, bold and libertine engineer who has emphatically rejected Hitler’s new order. But that same year his courage is tested to its limits: he is forced to leave both Germany and the woman he loves, even though he suspects that he is making the greatest mistake of his life. It is only many years later, a long time after the war, that Julia’s true story comes to light.
The first chapter of this novella was utterly brilliant – I loved the chauffeur, Van Dijk, and his discovery of and reaction to his dead boss. I thought he was a wonderful character and was instantly gripped by his voice and story.
It’s a shame then that from the second chapter onwards and for almost the rest of the book, we are given instead the story of Chris, the dead boss, and the events both in the war and leading up to his death. I’m sorry to say that Chris was a very irritating character and one of the most indecisive and weak literary men I’ve ever had the displeasure of meeting. This may be in part due to the fact that a large portion of his story is told to us rather than being shown to us, so I felt very disengaged indeed from what is happening to him. How I longed to return to that first chapter.
I also didn’t believe in Chris’s deep and abiding love for Julia, the woman he loses in the war. Indeed, Julia, like Chris, also tells us a great deal of things and becomes very quickly wearisome as a character. Really, the two of them deserved each other, but were of little interest to me as a reader. That said, the prose is very nice, but this factor is nowhere near enough to make a book sing. And Chris takes far too long in getting (at last!) to the moment of death, alas …
So it was with great relief that the final chapter brings us back to that wonderful chauffeur once more, and the ending is very powerful indeed. Van Dijk very much deserves his own book and is wasted in this one.
3 stars: a missed opportunity for a great character who is forced to remain on the sidelines