Welsh writer Rhidian Brook published two novels in the late ’90s, the first of which, The Testimony of Taliesin Jones, garnered him critical acclaim and a few awards in the UK. Over the next decade, Brook worked as a screenwriter for TV and film and as a journalist for the BBC. Having already been optioned as a film by Ridley Scott, The Aftermath, Brook’s first novel in 14 years, thus represents a rather satisfying career synthesis.
Based on Brook’s grandfather’s own experiences, the novel takes place in Allied-occupied Germany a year after the end of the Second World War. In Hamburg’s British Occupied Zone, Colonel Lewis Morgan—dubbed “Lawrence of Hamburg” for his unorthodox governing style and solicitude for the locals—is charged with the formidable task of rebuilding and “de-Nazifying” the devastated city. With years of work ahead, a house is requisitioned for Lewis and his family, already ferrying their way toward him from England.
Uncomfortable with the grandeur of the “bloody great palace” on the Elbe that has been chosen for him, however, Lewis opts not only to keep the house’s German servants, but proposes further that its current occupants, a widowed architect named Stefan Lubert and his teenage daughter Freda, stay and live upstairs.
Lewis’ wife Rachael isn’t thrilled when she discovers these unusual living arrangements. Nor is the house’s modernist, outré aesthetic—the angular furniture and Cubist paintings—much to her taste. Worse yet, Stefan’s cultured graciousness makes it difficult to maintain the curt aloofness her military-issue booklet suggests befits her role as benign occupier.
The coolness Rachael displays toward her husband, on the other hand, comes from a different place entirely: her continued bereavement over the death of their eldest son in a bombing raid back home.
Brook veers sharply away from the politics of the war itself; his interest is squarely in the individual, in the idea of characters equal to their intrinsic natures minus the effect of the losses they’ve suffered. “Pain,” thinks Rachael as she defiantly grieves her son, “was uniquely one’s own, and undiminished by a democracy of suffering.” One generation down, we find a reversal of attitudes. That the Colonel’s son Edmund has a nice-streak a mile wide matters not a bit to angry, bitter Freda, who doesn’t even try to conceal the contempt she feels for the boy now sleeping in her bedroom.
It’s when Rachael starts to see Stefan as something other than a representative of his nationality—someone who, like her, suffers from profound personal loss—that her frosty mien begins its steady thaw. She’s also bored hanging about with the other military wives who, like the gossipy ladies in Betty’s kitchen on Mad Men, seem to have nothing better to do than smoke and worry if their husband’s translator is too attractive. Needless to say, when Lewis gets called away on assignment for a couple of months Rachael finds herself not minding so very much.
The Aftermath is like a literary proving of Newton’s third law: every action in it seems to elicit an equal, or opposite reaction. Just as Edmund starts to build bridges with the feral children who forage for their living amongst the ruins, for instance, Freda takes up with their dangerous, Fagin-like leader, who’s eager to use her in his plans to avenge “Tommy.” Lewis, meanwhile, comes to think of his attempts to placate the irrational demands of Germany’s post-war stakeholders—the Russians, French and Americans—as “balancing Hell’s ledger.”
The Aftermath is an entertaining blend of romance, history and suspense, one to which Brook’s style is perfectly suited: it’s sturdy, stripped down with the just the right amount of gnarled beauty poking through the cracks.