Post-World War II Hamburg is a shell of its formerly elegant self. A week-long firestorm of bombing by the U.S. and Britain destroyed much of the city, and tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of homeless and displaced live and scavenge among the rubble. A few areas of the city remain untouched, however, and this is where British Colonel Lewis Morgan finds himself billeted in 1945, in a magnificent home owned by a noted German architect.
Morgan’s wife and surviving son are joining him for his post-war mission, in which rebuilding is sorely needed not only in the city, but also in his family. Since the death of son Michael in a bombing raid in England, Rachael Morgan has shut down, unable to face day-to-day life, ignoring even her young, sensitive son, Edmund. Having to move to Germany and live with the enemy is her worst nightmare. To complicate matters, Lewis, in full reparation mode, has allowed the architect, Lubert, and his daughter, Freda, to continue living in a separate apartment at the mansion, rather than sending them to one of the squalid encampments. Communication is poor and emotions run high on all sides, from Freda’s destructive anger to Rachael’s rejection of Lewis’s hopes for a happy reunion.
Learning to articulate one’s feelings, and then trust oneself as well as others, is a painful process, which Brook expresses well in this finely wrought story. The steps the characters take, first merely to survive, then to either punish or grow, are realistic, inviting the reader in to share these difficult times at an intimate level. Throughout the novel, Brook’s superb attention to detail brings forth the terror and pain of postwar life as well as the small joys that come from unexpected alliances.