Tracing the wounds of war through several locations

Paul Griner uses multiple datelines in his novel. Paul Griner uses multiple datelines in his novel. (John Nation)
By Michael Kenney
July 17, 2009
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Datelines, specific to both time and place, usher readers through sections of this fine novel, with its grim wealth of indelible images and plot built around unanswered questions and dissemblances.

The first dateline is the former Wilno (now Vilnius) on two days in January 1919, as rival Red and White armies wage a campaign of terror and slaughter in what was then East Prussia.

Then Berlin, and Hamburg, over two months in early 1919 as defeated and demoralized Germans endure physical hardship and street violence.

And finally, London in June 1944, as the nightly German rocket attacks, the “buzz bombs’’ dampen elation over the D-day landings.

Kate Zweig is “The German Woman’’ of the title, a young English nurse who treats wounded men at a field hospital near Wilno, along with her husband Horst, a German physician.

“It pained her to think of the future’’ the wounded men “would inherit,’’ Paul Griner writes, even more “to imagine the future [they] might construct’’ out of the devastation they had survived.

Kate and Horst become suspected of being spies, but manage to escape in a train crammed with refugees fleeing in the shuddering aftermath of civil war in the Russian Empire.

In Berlin they see that “at every corner people were gaming - dice and cards - while others argued politics. Pacifists hawked pamphlets, yelling that Germany’s leaders had lied them into war, and former soldiers tried to drum up support for new units, the freikorps, to defend Germany from the Reds.’’

At a nightclub, Kate dances with five men in officers’ uniforms, “backs rigidly straight, uniforms impeccably clean,’’ all blinded, their wounds “showing behind dark glasses.’’

Horst himself is blinded when a terrorist’s bomb shatters the windows of a café whose fancy pastries had enticed them inside. And in his mother’s flat, when they go on to Hamburg, Kate dances with him - “Close your eyes,’’ he says. “So you’ll be dancing blind too. You’ll see. It’s not so bad.’’

At 81 pages, this section would be an emotionally taut short novel. Indeed, the London story, more intricately plotted, could also stand on its own. Horst has died in Hamburg. Kate says only that she had left him there. She had been a nurse in German-occupied France, and is now - with the first of many gaps in her story - at a hospital in London.

The defining image in June 1944 is the impersonal terror of the buzz bombs, “[emerging over the city] from thick clouds to the south, engine rattling, tail fire turning the night sky a lurid orange.’’

At the Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner, Kate gets into an argument with a French-speaker denouncing the British and is rescued from the crowd by a man who says quietly, “There must be easier ways to commit suicide.’’

The man calls himself Claus, and Griner presents him as a British double agent sending misleading messages to the Germans about Allied invasion plans.

Like Kate, he has a past imbedded in the events of World War I. As Charles Murphy, an American of Irish-German parents, he had worked on a war propaganda film never released because of its anti-British sentiments.

Claus and Kate become lovers, but the relationship unravels as clues to a darker relationship of spy and counter-spy appear and are discounted, and hints are dropped and dismissed.

The reader may feel, like Kate and Claus, trapped in a web of disinformation. Much earlier, talking of Wilno and Berlin, Kate made what becomes a prophetic comment: “I survived, but I never escaped.’’

Michael Kenney is a Cambridge-based freelance writer.


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 308 pp., $25

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