Monday, June 18, 2012

Review of The Lily of the Field by John Lawton (Grove Press, 2011)

Vienna, 1934, and ten year old Meret Voytek, a talented young cellist, becomes a pupil of the concert pianist/cellist Viktor Rosen.  A Jew, Rosen has fled Germany after a stint in a camp, but the political climate in Austria is deteriorating and he knows that he’ll shortly have to move on.  1940 and Meret is playing in the Vienna Youth Orchestra, shorn of its Jewish players, and Rosen has been detained in London and interned on the Isle of Man, along with an assortment of other European émigrés, including Rod Troy and Karel Szabo, a Hungarian physicist.  Whilst some internees stay in Britain, others are sent overseas,  Szabo put on a boat to Canada.  A couple of months later he is recruited to work on the Manhattan Project.  1944 and Meret is in Auschwitz, trying to survive, playing in the women’s orchestra that greets new arrivals and waltzes them to the gas chambers.  Szabo is in Los Alamos, helping to build the atomic bomb and Rosen is delighting audiences at concerts.  1948 and a man is killed on a London Underground platform, shot in the back.  A man known to Rosen, who is now reunited with his protege, Meret.  Inspector Freddie Troy, brother to MP and government minister, Rod Troy, is put in charge of the case.  It doesn’t take him long to realise that there is more to the killing than it would first appear.  He’s been warned in no uncertain terms to stay away from anything involving spooks, but Freddie’s always had a problem following commands and it always drops him in hot water.

A Lily of the Field consists of two distinct parts.  The first part charts the various strands of Meret, Victor and Szabo from 1934 to 1948, putting in place the contextual back story.  The second covers Troy’s investigation into the underground station murder.  There’s a distinct contrast in styles between the two parts.  The first is light, quick, short scenes that provide insight into key moments and give good, strong pen pictures of the characters.  The writing is expressive and Lawton delivers an expansive story, covering a number of characters, places and times, in a relatively short amount of space.  The material is also historically rich, detailing key events over a 14 year period without it seeming as if things were skipped over or them dominating the narrative.  It is a really skilful and engaging piece of writing.  Really top-draw stuff.  The second half, the pace drops and the writing becomes a little more leaden, and characters from the first half all but disappear for extended passages.  At times, it is seems to become more about Troy and his family than the story.  It’s still very good, but it lacks the sparkle and dash of the first part.  Even so, the plotting is excellent and there is a satisfying resolution to the story.  Overall, a shame that the second half did not have the verve of the first, but nonetheless a well crafted and very enjoyable read that is a cut above normal fare.

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