The Aftermath is set amongst the devastated ruins in the fire-bombed city of Hamburg in 1946. The British have occupied the ruined city and Colonel Lewis Morgan, an officer and a gentleman, is charged with overseeing the restoration of order. However, Colonel Morgan must first deal with the human cost of the bombing including remnants of fanatic Nazis, the trummerkind – children of the rubble, and the starving civil populace. He also, in 1943, lost a child due to a Luftwaffe bomb and he must support his deeply grieving wife, Rachel, when she arrives after months of separation with their surviving twelve year old boy, the impressionable Edmund.
The drama is intensified when Colonel Lewis has to requisition a splendid villa for his own use and allows the owner, Herr Lubert, a German architect and significantly, a widower, to remain in the house with his own surly, indoctrinated daughter, Freda. There is also a retinue of domestic staff somewhat resentfully having to deal with a new English lady directing their activities. Morgan’s decisions look somewhat naïve but he feels he must set his men a positive example in forging the peace. Has he taken on the personal equivalent of ‘A Bridge Too Far’?
The novel begins with a German youth wearing a British helmet as he claws his way through the pulverised city heaps. He is dressed in an assortment of clothes pilfered and purloined from both the invading and defeated forces. The boy weaves his way with his wild gang of friends, the ferals, through the fractured cityscape. His face is dirty, his limbs are numb with the cold and he is hungry to the point of collapse. He represents the incipient future of Germany and is seeking to destroy the beast of the Nazi past.
In more comfortable surroundings, Colonel Lewes is allocated a house towards the ancient fishing suburb of Blankenese in sight of the winding, partially frozen expanse of the lower Elbe, situated in the grand and historic avenue of the Elbchaussee. His junior aide describes it as, A bloody great palace by the river. Originally, this belonged to the family of the deceased wife of the current owner; they were prosperous people who ran a number of flour mills. Lubert, the Hamburg citizen to whom the villa now belongs, is mourning intensely for his lost wife and appears a civilised man, an architect of considerable imagination. However, he has not yet received his certificate of clearance. This is the so-called Persilschein, which must show him to be free of Nazi connections. Lubert has yet to supply his answers to the 133 questions of the Fragebogen before he can obtain clearance from the Control Commissions Intelligence Branch. Will he be categorised as Black, Grey or White? What about his unhappy daughter, indoctrinated as a Hitler Madel and exploring her developing sexuality by bitterly taunting the English boy, Edmund, when he arrives with his own distraught and emotionally unavailable mother.
The novel which Rhidian Brooks has written has three qualities to recommend it. Firstly it has a narrative with a cinematic pace to it, giving an irresistibly engaging insight into the troubled times immediately after the war. It is informative about events as various as the firestorm raids, the details of how officer’s wives socialised and did their shopping which is compared with the shortages and rationing under the Attlee Government back in Britain. It is compelling too on the process of démontage by which German war industries and other factories were destroyed partly in accordance with agreements negotiated with Soviet forces. This was not to prevent the building of the Berlin Wall and the division of Germany which, as is pointed out, takes place shortly afterwards.
Secondly, beyond this engaging portrayal on the military and political level, Brook has written a novel which is emotionally intriguing, sometimes uncomfortably so as it deals with the betrayals and unforeseen effects of individuals trying to struggle with painful feelings of love and loss in a period of mistrust and change. This is an honest attempt to show sympathy for individuals caught up in a whirl of actions with unintended consequences. A world into which Brook, the author, has a personal insight; his own Grandfather had been involved in a very similar situation to that of Colonel Lewis and family.
Finally this well-constructed novel is interesting for the manner in which it reflects upon contemporary concerns. Some of these relate to the honourable Army officer. There is, for instance, some measure of Christopher Tiejens about Colonel Lewis Morgan from Maddox Ford’s great novel recently adapted for television, Parade’s End. There is also a renewed interest in the culpability of the enemy and also some of the rough justice meted out in the initial phase of the occupation – subject too of the currently intriguing film, Lore adapted fromThe Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert. This novel raises the question of how a defeated country might be re-established and the deeper personal meaning of loyalty, forgiveness and restitution. As we continue to ask ourselves if we have maintained and protected that fair society on which security might be built since 1945, this thoughtful book makes a sincere contribution to an ongoing debate.