It may feel sometimes like WWII is a subject that has been so well documented and fictionalized we don’t want to hear about it anymore. However, in the last year I’ve read some gripping novels that give a surprisingly different perspective on the war by focusing on the struggles of individuals on the periphery. Some of these include Lissa Evan’s “Crooked Heart” about con-artists on the home front, Ben Fergusson’s “The Spring of Kasper Meier” about the plight of German citizens in post-war occupied Berlin and Audrey Magee’s “The Undertaking” about a wartime marriage of convenience which turns into a harrowing tale of loss. Jason Hewitt takes an even more radically new view of the war showing the days leading up to its end and the immediate aftermath. However, “Devastation Road” doesn’t simply recount the complicated historical details of this significant time. Instead we travel on a journey down an anonymous road that has been ravaged by the war. Owen wakes to find himself bedraggled and disorientated near a river that is awash with bodies and without any clear recollection of the past five years. During his travels through a devastated Eastern Europe he slowly regains an understanding of who he is and what led him to this critical moment. His odyssey illuminates the way war is above-all made up of individual struggle and the terrible choices people must make to survive.
The trauma of war and a head injury have caused Owen to lose his short-term memory. At first this is a real struggle and he must write down what’s happening in order to remind himself what he experiences day by day and the fragmented memories which flash through his mind. He soon encounters a passionate Czech refugee named Janek who doesn’t speak English and a mysterious Polish woman named Irena who desperately wants to get rid of her baby. They accompany him on his journey trying to find people they have lost. Owen’s experiences and the way his life story gradually slots together cause him to entirely re-evaluate his identity. At one point Owen realises that “He was beginning to feel like a fugitive; or as if he had two lives running in parallel – the one he remembered and the one here and now.” This shows how our sense of self can become very thin and flexible, especially when challenged by something as traumatic as war. It causes people to both completely lose themselves or reinvent themselves as a necessary method of endurance.
The story becomes both a thrilling and horrifying adventure as the truth is gradually revealed about the protagonists and the plight of people in the aftermath of war. With so many people displaced and communities’ infrastructure so broken, Owen wanders through a land of virtual chaos. We see how the war’s ending didn’t simply mean peace. The repercussions of the damage and continuing struggles of looting, fighting and rape persisted. A welfare officer remarks that “The war might as well still be raging for all the good the peace is doing us.” The way forward is uncertain. It’s compelling seeing how Hewitt’s characters adjust to this new environment by either triumphing or breaking down. Betrayal is a consistent theme in this novel where lovers, family and country are deceived out of necessity. The author explores the consequences of this in ways which are subtle and surprising. In particular, I found Irena’s character be extremely compelling as she is someone who felt thinly-drawn at first but her complicated story proves to be one of the most heart breaking.
It feels as if Jason Hewitt has taken the concept of Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road” and placed it in a historically specific time and place. Only through encounters and glimpses of the ravaged landscape do we piece together what has happened. While the physical and emotional damage of the war is real and painfully-felt, what’s in some ways equally disturbing is the way people’s sense of humanity has been so violently shaken. There are beautiful small acts of good will and terrifying scenes of vicious cruelty. “Devastation Road” takes you on a journey where you experience the extremes of war; you ultimately arrive somewhere that makes you very grateful for the gracious comfort of home.
Here is an article written by the author about displaced person's after WWII and the formation of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency which feature in this novel: http://www.historiamag.com/?page_id=1494