Book review: The Constant Soldier by William Ryan
But it’s a race against time as the merciless Soviet army is closing in with only one single-minded aim… to wreak revenge on their despised German enemy.
Irish-born William Ryan, author of a string of crime novels set in 1930s Stalinist Russia, moves out of what has become his ‘home’ territory and into the dying days of the Second World War in a thrilling, beautifully written and breathtakingly powerful story of evil, inhumanity, love, hope and redemption.
One man’s crusade to right the wrongs of his countrymen and repay a haunting personal debt becomes a gripping battle for survival in an Upper Silesian village in central Europe where he grew up.
In 1944, Paul Brandt, a soldier in the German army, returns wounded and consumed with guilt from the bloody chaos of the Eastern front to his village home in Silesia, annexed from Poland by the Germans.
Brandt’s face is badly disfigured by a Soviet explosion during the retreat from Russia and he has lost both an arm and his enthusiasm for life. But, deeply ashamed of his enforced military service with the Wehrmacht and haunted by an event at the start of the war, he is determined to make amends.
Much has changed in his village where the residents live in the dark shadow of an SS rest hut, a luxurious retreat for the Nazis who manage the nearby concentration camps. Modelled to look like a pre-war holiday camp, the rest accommodation is run by a small group of female prisoners who, against all odds, have so far survived the war.
When, by chance, Brandt glimpses one of these prisoners, he realises that she is a face from his guilty past and he knows he must find a way to access the hut. His fate has been tied to Agneta Gruber since their arrest five years before and now he must do all he can to protect her.
As a wounded German hero, Brandt secures a job as the rest hut’s steward but, with the Russian offensive moving ever closer, the days of the Nazi ‘holiday camp’ and its SS inhabitants are numbered.
And while hope for Brandt and the female prisoners grows tantalisingly close, the danger is also now greater than ever. Because in a forest just to the east, a young female Soviet tank driver awaits her orders to advance…
Ryan moves up a gear in this brilliant, emotionally-charged story which combines a poignant romance with an edge-of-the-seat thriller. But what impresses most is the author’s powerful writing which blends taut action sequences with passages of soaring literary beauty.
Inspired to write the novel by photographs of some of the worst perpetrators of the Holocaust relaxing and enjoying themselves at the real-life Silesian rest hut at a time when Auschwitz was at its most lethal, Ryan wrote this story from the heart.
And Brandt’s one-man mission, set amidst the terror, uncertainty and turmoil of the disintegrating Nazi machine, is certainly portrayed with mesmerising atmosphere and shocking veracity.
The dark and ever present threat of the ruthless SS masters and the approaching menace of the Soviet army are thrown into stark relief by the quiet power and unquenchable flame of enduring love.
A modern classic from a master storyteller…
(Pan, paperback, £7.99)