Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Review: The Radovaks' War, by Robert Wickson

This is quite an ambitious undertaking, tracking a Polish family, the Radovaks, and their connections through the six years of the Second World War, across Europe and North Africa. Although the story follows all members of the family from time to time, it focuses most closely on the two sons, Stefan and Igor and, to a lesser extent, their father, Max.

The point of view (POV) adopted in this novel is crucial to how well it works or doesn’t work. When the focus is on Igor and Stefan, the POV tends to be third person and intimate. This is also sometimes true from time to time of other characters, but it is Igor and Stefan whom we come to know most intimately. We are made privy to their emotions and thoughts; we are taken into situations of suspense, jeopardy and intimacy with them. These are the parts of the novel that work best. Having said that, sometimes, even during these more intimate moments, the POV might shift momentarily to another (sometimes quite minor) character. This was not always successful. As far as other members of the family are concerned—particularly the mother, Anna, and Igor’s wife, Trishka—even when the narrative concerns them, the POV tends to be more remote and external, and events are often related quickly and sketchily. Sometimes they are not seen for many chapters, and even when they are finally seen again, the reader never comes to know them very well. As a result, the reader does not become very heavily invested in their fate.

There are large gaps even in the stories of Igor and Stefan. Sometimes they disappear for several chapters, and many months might pass. Although the external events of their stories are quite different, I never really acquired a sense of these men as distinct personalities. They remain, rather generically, young men involved in dangerous circumstances. These circumstances and the men’s activities dominate over personalities. Nevertheless, some of these individual episodes are very well told. Max, although given less airtime, seems to have a more distinctive personality, perhaps because he is an older man. Among the women, Anna the wife and Trishka the daughter-in-law scarcely come to life. It is actually Marie, the love interest of Stefan, who acquires the most substance among the women, probably because there is at least one chapter in which her POV is adopted and becomes very intimate. Minor characters come and go throughout the story, some given—briefly—more prominence than others, only to disappear off stage, never to be seen again; or to have their fate reported briefly later. One character is introduced only very briefly and his death scene is reported. We are then informed that over several months Igor had become close friends with him. This has important implications for the final chapters of the novel. Yet this friendship is only very briefly reported, and his death leaves the reader unmoved because the reader has no relationship with this character. This is an example of the inconsistency in the treatment of minor characters which is sometimes problematic.

I would rather the author had made a firmer decision to follow closely the trajectory of the two sons (and, to a lesser extent, the father) through the war, rather than popping back occasionally to relate what had been happening with the women for the past few months. In the end, these brief episodes were a distraction from the central narrative. The alternative would have been to give a much closer and more intimate account of the women too, which would, of course, have made this a much larger novel, perhaps of Gone With the Wind or War and Peace proportions.

All in all, I felt that the author the captured period quite well. As to the historical accuracy of the events reported I am not entirely sure; but I did notice one historical discrepancy: although referred to several times here in 1945, the KGB was not formed until 1954. This did make me wonder about the historical accuracy of other parts of the story.

As seems to happen so often in many (particularly self-published) novels, there appeared to be an increasing number of typographical errors as the novel progressed, as though whoever undertook the editing and proofreading became tired and lost focus along the way. I was particularly irritated by the persistent use, during one section of the novel, of mien for the German mein. This inevitably stood out in the italicised font.

I did, in the end, enjoy this novel, although the way the author sometimes skipped lightly over important events, or made large jumps in time, irritated me. Overall, I felt the novel could have used a firm editor’s hand. I give it three stars.

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