Set in post-war Germany, the international bestseller The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook is a stunning emotional thriller about our fiercest loyalties and our deepest desires. In the bitter winter of 1946, Rachael Morgan arrives with her only remaining son Edmund in the ruins of Hamburg. Here she is reunited with her husband Lewis, a British colonel charged with rebuilding the shattered city. But as they set off for their new home, Rachael is stunned to discover that Lewis has made an extraordinary decision: they will be sharing the grand house with its previous owners, a German widower and his troubled daughter. In this charged atmosphere, enmity and grief give way to passion and betrayal.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.74(d)|
About the Author
Rhidian Brook is an award-winning writer of fiction, television, and film. His debut novel, The Testimony of Taliesin Jones, won the Somerset Maugham Award, a Betty Trask Award, and the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award. His stories have appeared in The Paris Review and New Statesman. He lives in London with his wife and two children.
Read an Excerpt
“We’ve found a house for you, sir.”
Captain Wilkins stubbed out his cigarette and placed his yellowed finger on the map of Hamburg that was pinned to the wall behind his desk. He traced a line west from the pinhead marking their temporary headquarters, away from the bombed-out districts of Hammerbrook and St. Georg, over St. Pauli and Altona, towards the old fishing suburb of Blankenese, where the Elbe veered up and debouched into the North Sea. The map—pulled from a pre-war German guidebook—failed to show that these conurbations were now a phantom city comprised only of ash and rubble.
“It’s a bloody great palace by the river. Here.” Wilkins’s finger circled the crook at the end of the Elbchaussee, the road running parallel to the great river. “I think it’ll be to your taste, sir.”
The word belonged to another world: a world of surplus and civil comfort. In the last few months, Lewis’s tastes had narrowed to a simple checklist of immediate and basic needs: 2,500 calories a day, tobacco, warmth. “A bloody great palace by the river” suddenly seemed to him like the demand of a frivolous king.
Lewis had “gone off ” again; off into that unruly parliament inside his head, a place where, more and more, he found himself in hot debate with colleagues.
“Isn’t there someone living in it already?”
Wilkins wasn’t sure how to respond. His CO was a man of excel- lent repute with an impeccable war record, but he seemed to have these quirks, a way of seeing things differently. The young captain resorted to reciting what he had read in the manual: “These people have little moral compass, sir. They are a danger to us and to them- selves. They need to know who is in charge. They need leadership. A firm but fair hand.”
Lewis nodded and waved the captain on, saving his words. The cold and the calories had taught him to ration these.
“The house belongs to a family called Lubert. Loo-bear-t. Hard ‘T.’ The wife died in the bombings. Her family were bigwigs in the food trade. Connections with Blohm and Voss. They also owned a series of flour mills. Herr Lubert was an architect. He’s not been cleared yet but we think he’s a probable white or, at worst, an acceptable shade of grey; no obvious direct Nazi connections.”
Lewis had not eaten all day and had taken the short leap from “flour mill” to bread without thinking; the bread he pictured in his head was suddenly more present, more real, than the captain stand- ing at the map on the other side of the desk.
“Go on—the family.” Lewis made an effort to look as if he was listening, nodding and setting his jaw at an inquisitive tilt.
Wilkins continued: “Lubert’s wife died in ’43. In the firestorm. One child—a daughter. Freda, fifteen years old. They have some staff—a maid, a cook and a gardener. The gardener is a first-rate handyman—ex-Wehrmacht. The family have some relatives they can move in with. We can billet the staff, or you can take them on. They’re clean enough.”
The process by which the soul-sifters of the Control Commis-sion’s Intelligence Branch assessed cleanliness was the Fragebogen, or questionnaire: 133 questions to determine the degree of a German citizen’s collaboration with the regime. From this, they were categorized into three colour-coded groups—black, grey and white, with intermediate shades for clarity—and dispatched accordingly.
“They’re expecting the requisition. It’s just a matter of you viewing the place then turfing them out. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, sir.”
“You think they will be disappointed, Captain?”
“The Luberts? When I turf them out.” “They’re not allowed the luxury of disappointment, sir. They’re Germans.”
“Of course. How silly of me.” Lewis left it there. Any more such questions and this efficient young officer with his shiny Sam Browne and perfect puttees would have him reported to Psychiatric.
He stepped from the overheated British Military Detachment Headquarters into the premature cold of a late-September day. He blew vapour and pulled on the kid gloves that Captain McLeod, the American cavalry officer, had given him in the town hall at Bremen the day the Allies had announced the division lines of the new Germany. “Looks like you get the bum deal,” he had said, reading the directive. “The French get the wine, we get the view and you guys get the ruins.”
Lewis had lived among the ruins for so long now he had stopped noticing them. His uniform was fitting garb for a governor in this new, quadripartite Germany—a kind of internationalized mufti which, in the midst of post-war disorientation and re-regulation, passed without comment.
The American gloves were prized but it was his Russian-front sheepskin coat that gave him the most pleasure, its provenance traceable back via the American to a Luftwaffe lieutenant who had, in turn, taken it from a captured Red Army colonel. He’d be wearing it soon enough if this weather kept up.
It was a relief to get away from Wilkins. The young officer was one of the new brigade of civil servants that made up the Control Commission, Germany, a bloated force of clipboard men who saw themselves as the architects of the reconstruction. Few of these people had seen action—or even a German—and this allowed them to pronounce and theorize their way to decisions with confidence. Wilkins would make major before long.
Lewis took a silver-plated cigarette case from his coat and opened it, catching the light from the sun on its clear, buffed surface. He polished it regularly. The case was the only material treasure he had with him, a parting gift from Rachael given to him at the gates of the last proper house he’d lived in—in Amersham, three years ago. “Think of me when you smoke” was her instruction, and this he had tried to do, fifty, sixty times a day for three years; a little ritual to keep the flame of love alive. He lit a cigarette and thought about that flame. With distance and time it had been easy to make it seem hotter than it was. The remembrance of their lovemaking and of his wife’s olive-smooth, curvy flesh had sustained him through the cold and lonely months (her flesh seemingly growing smoother and curvier as the war went by). But he had grown so comfortable with this imagined, ersatz version of his wife that the imminent prospect of actually touching and smelling her unsettled him.
A sleek black Mercedes 540K with a British pennant on the bon- net pulled up in front of the steps of the headquarters. The Union Jack at the wing mirror was the only thing that looked out of place. Despite its associations, Lewis liked this vehicle, its lines and the silky purr of its engine. It was appointed like an ocean-going liner, and the ultra-careful driving style of his driver—Herr Schroeder— added to the impression of it being like a ship. No amount of British insignia could de-Germanize this car, though. British military personnel were built for the bumbling, bulbous Austin 16, not these brute-beautiful, world-conquering machines.
Lewis walked down the steps and gave his driver a half-salute.
Schroeder, a reedy, unshaven man wearing a black cap and cape, leapt from the driver’s seat and walked briskly round to the rear passenger door. He bowed once in Lewis’s direction and, with a flourish of his cape, opened the door.
“The front seat is fine, Herr Schroeder.”
Schroeder seemed agitated at Lewis’s self-demotion. “Nein, Herr Kommandant.”
“Really. Sehr gut,” Lewis repeated.
“Bitte, Herr Oberst.”
Schroeder clunked the rear door shut and held up a hand, still not wanting Lewis to lift a finger.
Lewis stepped back, playing the game, but the German’s deference depressed him: these were the motions of a defeated man clinging to patronage. Inside, Lewis handed Schroeder the scrap of paper on which Wilkins had scribbled the address of the house that was probably going to be his home for the foreseeable future. The driver squinted at it and nodded his approval of the destination.
Schroeder was forced to steer a weaving course between the bomb craters that pocked the cobbled road and the rivulets of people walking in dazed, languid fashion, going nowhere in particular, carrying the remnant objects of their old lives in parcels, sacks, crates and cartons, and a heavy, almost visible, disquiet. They were like a people thrown back to the evolutionary stage of nomadic gatherers.
The ghost of a tremendous noise hung over the scene. Something out of this world had undone this place and left an impossible jig- saw from which to reconstruct the old picture. There was no put- ting it back together again and there would be no going back to the old picture. This was Stunde Null. The Zero Hour. These people were starting from scratch and scratching a living from nothing. Two women pushed and pulled a horse cart stacked with furniture between them, while a man carrying a briefcase walked along as though in search of the office where he once worked without even a glance at the fantastic destruction that lay all around him, as if this apocalyptic architecture were the natural state of things.
A smashed city stretched as far as the eye could see, the rubble reaching as high as the first floor of any building still standing. Hard to believe that this was once a place where people read newspapers, made cakes and thought about which pictures to hang on the walls of their front parlours. The facade of a church stood on one side of the road, with only sky for stained glass and the wind for a congregation. On the other side, apartment blocks—intact except for the fronts, which had been completely blown off, revealing the rooms and furniture within—stood like giant doll’s houses. In one of these rooms, oblivious to the elements and exposure to watching eyes, a woman stood lovingly brushing a young girl’s hair in front of a dressing table.
Further along the road, women and children stood around piles of rubble, scavenging for sustenance or looking to save fragments of their past. Black crosses marked the places where bodies lay waiting to be buried. And, everywhere, the strange pipe-chimneys of a subterranean city protruded from the ground, pouring black smoke into the sky.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of The Aftermath, award-winning author Rhidian Brook’s courageous, emotionally gripping new novel set in Germany during the tumultuous year following the end of World War II.
1. The novel’s title appears to be straightforward, but there are many types of aftermath within. What do you think the title represents?
2. What is the beast? What does it symbolize?
3. On page 6, Wilkins says that, as Germans, the Luberts are “not allowed the luxury of disappointment.” What does he mean by that? Who is allowed to be disappointed?
4. Several times in the novel, characters mention Stunde Null, the Zero Hour. How does the concept hold them back, or help them?
5. Why do you think Lewis is so soft-hearted, compared to the other British officers? During the novel Rachael seems bothered by his leniency, but do you think it was a trait she viewed differently before the war?
6. Why did Michael’s death affect each family member so differently? How does each of them, ultimately, begin to heal?
7. There are several families in the novel, and multiple orphans. How does the presence—or loss—of family members affect the characters’ attitudes?
8. Rachael learns to play a piece by Schumann called “Warum”. Stefan tells her the title “doesn’t translate exactly. It is ‘why?’ But it is more ‘Why did this happen? For what reason?’” (page 69) Later, after the shooting, Lewis tries to play the same piece (page 246). Why is this significant?
9. The “resistance movement” in the novel is very different from what most of us think when we hear that term. How much did you know about postwar German resistance?
10. What makes Freda so susceptible to Albert and his cause?
11. When Edmund sees that his father’s cigarette case doesn’t hold a picture of him, why does he react so calmly? And later, when he asks Lewis about it, why doesn’t he push for an explanation?
12. After Herr Koenig is exposed as a member of the Nazi Special Police, Lewis tells Edmund, “Sometimes . . . the bad in someone…is buried quite deep” (page 162). Who else in the novel might this describe?
13. Although Lewis considers forgiveness to be “the most powerful weapon in their armoury” (page 170), many of the other characters struggle to forgive their former enemies. Discuss the notion of forgiveness: by the end, which characters have managed to find their way toward it, and which haven’t?
Were you as surprised as Rachael by the real subject of the painting Stefan took down from the wall? How would you have responded to the revelation?
15. When Berti burns Mutti’s skeleton—in a city destroyed by an Allied firestorm, after a war in which millions were cremated in the camps—what point is the author making?
16. If you were Rachael, how would you have revealed what she learned about Claudia?
17. On page 236, Rachael says to Stefan, “It was loss that brought us together. And you have refound what you lost.” What did Stefan refind?
18. Why does Lewis feel compelled to avenge Barker’s death, when he accepted his son’s so smoothly?
19. When he explains his actions to Rachael, Lewis says, “Burnham was right . . . If you trust everyone, someone will pay” (page 247). What does he mean?
20. Why does Burnham feel justified in looting his requisitioned home? Why is he surprised when Lewis calls him on it?
21. Most of the time, the story filters through Lewis and his family. Why do you think the author chose to begin and end the novel with Ozi?
A Conversation with Rhidian Brook, Author of The Aftermath
What inspired you to write a book about the aftermath rather than the action of World War II?
The story of my grandfather requisitioning a German house for his family and then sharing it with the owners provided the initial inspiration for the novel. A British and a German family sharing a house just one year after the war was a gift of a set-up. The fact that this all took place in a largely forgotten period of history only added to the intrigue. And the more I researched the period the more I realized how rich in dramatic possibility it was. In 1945 a defeated Germany had been divided into four zones - British, American, French and Russian. It's said that the French got the wine, the Americans the view and the British the ruins. Before we get to the Cold War there was this extraordinary moment (a moment oddly under-served by both literature and history) during which the occupying powers wrestled with the massive task of rebuilding a smashed country and the challenge of rehabilitating a damaged people whilst dealing with their crimes. Somehow they had to find a balance between forgiveness and justice, revenge and punishment.
How did this personal connection from your grandfather's story influence your writing? What elements are real and where did you take fiction license? And what, if anything, was hardest about fictionalizing a family story?
Without the personal connection I might never have written the novel. The story was so particular. When it came to writing the story I drew hugely on the memories of my father and my uncle who were aged 9 and 16 at the time. They lived in that house on and off for five years and their memories were vivid and amazingly detailed. With little historic documentation to draw on I relied heavily on their memories to give the story its texture.
However, I did not want to write a straight-forward family memoir (something I did consider). When my father mentioned my grandmother feeling resentful at turning up in Germany (having not seen my grandfather for years because of the war) to be told she was sharing a house "with the enemy" I thought "that's it - that resentment is the engine of my story." The set-up of my novel is close to actual events, but the unfolding dramatic clashes in the house are of my own making. As are the characters. I did not know my grandfather but The Aftermath's Lewis Morgan is, in part, my idea of what he was like. Rachael has elements of both of my grandmothers - the intelligence of one, the glamour of the other - but again, she is my creation. Perhaps the boy Edmund most closely fits someone in real life - namely my father. Indeed, when my dad read the novel he was struck my how like Edmund he was!
The real challenge of writing a fiction based on family history was an obvious one: how to keep a distance. I was certainly conscious of trying to honour what actually happened - particularly my grandfather Walter's noble act - and yet, at the same time, I needed to be free to write what I wanted.
You've certainly had this story in your mind for much of your life, given it has its start in a family story. What led you to write this now and not earlier?
I was sorting old papers this week when I came across a film treatment for The House At Kreis Pinneberg (my working title for The Aftermath). It was dated 2002. At that time I had written two novels and although critically acclaimed they were not paying the bills. I had just started trying to earn a living as a scriptwriter and was on the lookout for ideas. My father had just told me the story in full and I had been so struck by it that I wrote an outline and showed it to a few producers. They all thought it a great idea but weren't willing to commit. Deep down I wanted to write it as a novel but I was soon so busy with television and film commissions I didn't have the time to make a start. So I put the outline in a drawer. That delay was probably a blessing in disguise. A few years later, one of those producers became a literary agent and called me to ask about "that German story." She badgered me into writing as much of the novel as I could to see if I could get a contract. Meanwhile, a big film company commissioned the story as a screenplay and so I found myself in the unusual position of realising the story in two different forms almost simultaneously. I can't be sure, but that ten-year gap between initial outline and eventual writing of the novel seemed key. When I eventually sat down to write the novel I was completely immersed in the period, place and background, having done a great deal of research for the screenplay. I was also a little older, uglier and hopefully wiser. And if the telling of this story needed anything it needed wisdom.
While themes like "love thine enemy" and the aftermath of war certainly loom large, one of the central stories here is a couple trying to restore their relationship. What led you to that theme, and how was it to write?
I used a micro and macro lens on The Aftermath. It's a story about the re-building of a country, but it's also about the re-building of a marriage - as well as the lives of those broken by war. Most dramas set around this time (the Second World War) tend to deal with things being taken apart; The Aftermath explores the challenge of putting things back together. I was particularly curious to look at how married couples coped with separation and loss and the difficulty of learning to live together again having got so used to living apart.
Who have you discovered lately?
I am currently reading The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Hardly an unknown quantity but what a discovery for me!?
As for the new, I was hugely impressed by Laurent Binet's HhHH and Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.