review by Maryom
Paul Brandt has returned home from Germany's Russian Front a broken man, but his obvious physical wounds - the lost of an arm and disfiguring facial burns - hide deeper emotional ones. He's ashamed of the conduct of the German army, of the senseless atrocities and mindless killing he's seen, and participated in, and is looking for a way to make amends. In some respects his valley home on the German/Polish border is unchanged but war has still found it's way here - there are no able bodied men to work the land, down the valley lies a concentration camp and closer to hand is a SS Rest Hut, a retreat for those who run the camp, somewhere for them to forgot the horrors of their day to day life. Among the prisoners working at the Hut, Brandt believes he recognises a woman he knew, and loved, before the war, a woman who was part of an anti-Nazi group to which he belonged, and for whose arrest he has always felt responsible. Accepting a position as steward at the Hut, Brandt vows that from now on he will do his utmost to protect her, but meanwhile Russian troops are massing ready to move on Germany, and a time is approaching in which no one will be safe.
The Constant Soldier is a blend of thriller, historical fiction and love story; the sort of book that grabs you on the first page, and which can't be put down. The story of Brandt and his attempts to redeem himself play out like a spy or undercover cop thriller, with him in constant danger of being exposed as someone who no longer has any sympathy for the Nazi regime - something which would surely end swiftly in his death - but it's set against the wider backdrop of Germany in 1944 as the Russians advance and everyone begins to panic. Without labouring the point, Ryan tries to understand the mind-set of the 'average' German, particularly soldiers, who've drifted along with the tide of events and either through apathy or self-advancement found themselves part of an horrific war and an authoritarian regime they never really approved of - and for which now they're going to have to pay.
Reading it today with the recent rise in religious and racial hate crime, and a seeming shift to right-wing policies in many countries, there are disturbing parallels to be seen. Ryan isn't trying to lecture his readership though; The Constant Soldier is primarily a gripping, compelling story. The luxury and 'normality' of the Rest Hut contrasts starkly with the largely unseen life of the concentration camp. Brandt is a character with whom one can easily sympathise. The German's are not seen as stereo-type heel-clicking soldiers but as individuals - disillusioned army officers, disenfranchised Polish farmers, and resistance members on one side, with more-typical uniformed bullies and a power-hungry mayor on the other, and the young schoolboys, soon to become defenders of their piece of Germany, caught in the middle.
It's a book I'd highly recommend whether you read it at face value of historical thriller or as something thought-provoking and perhaps disturbing.
Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Mantle (Panmacmillan)
Genre - adult historical thriller, war story, WW2