Friday, December 23, 2016

Review of Devastation Road by Jason Hewitt (Scribner, 2015)

A man wakes in a field. He is unsure who he is, where he is, or how he got there. Gradually he gathers himself and starts to explore. In a nearby river bodies are floating past. At a farmhouse a young man appears to be burying two people. He starts a journey, heading to where he thinks home might be.  He is joined by the young man, Janek, who reveals they are in Czechoslovakia. The war is on-going, but the Russians are not far away and the roads are full of refugees. Using a fragment of map, Owen, heads into Silesia with a sense he is searching for something, though he’s not sure what. Janek is hunting for his brother, Petr. Unable to retain memories for long Owen jots down notes to refresh his knowledge. Gradually he starts to remember fragments of his life in England, his brother, a woman, and joining the RAF. On their journey Owen and Janek meet Irena, a troubled young Polish woman who is trying to give away her unnamed baby. Together the three of them plus the baby head towards Leipzig en route to England, the past of each gradually catching up with them. And the more they progress into the heart of Germany the more devastating the journey becomes.

Set in the last days of the Second World War, Devastation Road charts Owen’s journey from a field in Czechoslovakia back to England. As told by Hewitt it’s both a physical and metaphorical journey – a slog across Germany and one of self-discovery. With amnesia and disorientated, Owen sets off on foot accompanied by a young man, Janek who is seeking his brother. Initially avoiding roads, they soon join the endless stream of refugees and are joined by Irena and her baby, who is seeking the man who raped her to pass on the child. Together they journey to an abandoned prisoner of war camp, then onto the rubble of Leipzig, ending up in concentration camp shortly after liberation. Along the journey Owen starts to remember fragments of his life and how he ended up on the continent. Janek and Irena have their own secrets that are also gradually revealed. The strength of the story is the hook of the journey and the evolving dynamic between Owen, Janek and Irena and the gradual piecing together of each of their lives. The tale seemed to sag and lose direction a little in the middle section, and I never quite connected with the lead characters, but Hewitt brings the story to a poignant denouement. The result is a thoughtful tale that deals with themes of memory, belonging, regret, and redemption.

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