The Constant Soldier

Written by William Ryan
Review by Jasmina Svenne

In late 1944, veteran of the Eastern Front Paul Brandt is invalided home, maimed and disfigured almost beyond recognition. When he discovers that an SS rest camp has been built within sight of his father’s farm, Brandt thinks he might have found a way to atone for his past—particularly as he recognises one of the female prisoners who staff the camp as the one woman from his past he has never been able to forget. But danger looms all around: from the officers who run the camp, the partisans that lurk in the forest and the approaching Red Army…

This powerful and at times lyrical novel, inspired by a real rest camp close to Auschwitz, vividly evokes the atmosphere of the last months of the Third Reich. All the characters are complex and human, but in Neumann, the officer in charge of the rest hut, Ryan demonstrates how an ordinary man, no better and no worse than anyone else, could be sucked into committing atrocities that continue to haunt him long afterwards. The novel is all the stronger because most of the violence and horror of the Nazi regime is kept offstage, allowing the reader’s imagination full rein. As in the best psychological thrillers, as the book built to its climax, I found myself both desperate to find out what happened next and afraid to go on, because anyone with even a smattering of knowledge of the period would be aware there is a strong possibility that it won’t end well for the central characters.

I can’t praise this book highly enough. Everyone should read it, including those, like me, who are wary of reading anything involving the SS. Because it isn’t really about them. It’s about love and humanity that survive even in the direst circumstances.