For Throwback Thursday this week, I’m looking back at The Constant Soldier, which was published in 2017 by Pan (my edition) and was described as ‘An intense, gripping, emotionally charged read’ by the Irish Sunday Independent.
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.
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.
About the Book
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.
1944. Paul Brandt, a soldier in the German army, returns wounded and ashamed from the bloody chaos of the Eastern front to find his village home much changed and existing in the dark shadow of an SS rest hut – a luxurious retreat for those who manage the concentration camps, run with the help of 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 realizes that he must find a way to access the hut. For inside is the woman to whom his fate has been tied since their arrest five years before, and now he must do all he can to protect her.
But as the Russian offensive moves ever closer, the days of this rest hut and its SS inhabitants are numbered. And while hope – for Brandt and the female prisoners – grows tantalizingly close, the danger too is now greater than ever.
And, in a forest to the east, a young female Soviet tank driver awaits her orders to advance . . .