- Author: William Ryan
- Published: This edition, June 2017 by Pan
- Category: WWII, Historical Fiction, Books, Reading
The pain woke him up. He was grateful for it. The train had stopped and somewhere, up above them, the drone of aircraft engines filled the night sky. He could almost remember her smile . . . It must be the morphine . . . He had managed not to think about her for months now.
It’s 1944 and Paul Brandt, a German soldier, horrifically wounded and returning from the front, is on a hospital train bound for recuperation, convalescence and finally, home and his father. The village he had left years before, and the people, were not the same. By the same token, neither was Paul. His experiences have left him demoralised and guilt ridden.
The village was now German, having previously been Austrian then Polish, and dominated by an SS facility, a ‘rest hut’ for those who run the concentration camps, overseen by Obersturmführer Neumann, and staffed by several female prisoners. I enjoyed the fact the story covers a setting during the war not, to my knowledge, usually written about. Also told from the perspective of a German soldier who was not, and never had been, a Nazi sympathiser. Joining the army was the lesser of two evils, or so Paul thought at the time, having been arrested as a student. Now Paul returns home, a man burdened with debts he feels obliged to pay, determined to right whatever wrongs he could.
‘What are you going to do, now that you’re back here?’
‘I plan to make amends,’ he said. ‘For all of my sins.’
When Paul glimpses one of the women prisoners, she seems familiar to him. The realisation of who she might be stuns him and when he is offered the position of steward at the facility he seizes the opportunity, even though it means he’s living and working in a dangerous situation surrounded by those he considers the enemy, and whose absolute supremacy is apparent by their activities and ruthless cruelty.
This is an incredibly atmospheric and emotive narrative, given the difficult subject matter. The book is based on and inspired by true events, which lend a haunting and poignant authenticity, with a deep awareness and insight into the characters – the arrogant, the disillusioned, the brave, the haunted and the brutal.
The setting is vividly portrayed, the bitter cold of winter is tangible, adding to the bleakness and chaos as the Russian army draws ever closer. Chapters from the perspective of Polya Kolanka give an indication of the Russians involvement, from her time in the locomotive factory building tanks, to crewing and maintaining one of the them as the army approaches Germany.
Extremely thought provoking and encompassing a myriad of emotions, I was swept along by the story, the short chapters encouraging me to keep turning the pages.
I chose to read and review The Constant Soldier based on a copy of the book supplied by the author/publisher.
About William Ryan
William Ryan is an Irish writer living in London. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin and the University of St Andrews and worked as a lawyer before taking up writing full-time. His first novel, THE HOLY THIEF, was shortlisted for the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year, The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, The CWA John Creasy New Blood Dagger and a Barry Award. His second novel, THE BLOODY MEADOW, was shortlisted for the Ireland AM Irish Crime Novel of the Year, as was his next – THE TWELFTH DEPARTMENT. THE TWELFTH DEPARTMENT was also shortlisted for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger and named one of The Guardian’s crime novels of the year. William lives in London with his wife and son.