By William Ryan
Published by Mantle (25 August 2016)
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 . . .
My verdictThe Constant Soldier is an emotional novel about the uncertainty of war, the loss of humanity, guilt and redemption. It offers a far more humane side to German soldiers compared with other books that cover a similar theme, including many of those that I have read in the past.
Set in the last few weeks of the Nazi regimen, it follows the story of a German soldier who has returned to his home village to live with his father after suffering severe injuries. He wasn't a Nazi sympathiser, quite the opposite, but gets a job in a local SS rest hut after he recognises one of the female prisoners there.
The book provides an insight into the chaos, panic and conflict felt by the Germans as the war was ending, and also the experience of the Russians as they advanced towards the camps. Some of the SS officers looked back at their actions with disgust, others with pride. Then there were the Germans who refused to take part in the brutality and joined the resistance, determined to save as many lives as possible.
Based on true events, and inspired by a series of photographs of Nazi officers enjoying themselves at a rest hut, The Constant Soldier is certainly compelling and fascinating reading. It's beautifully written in haunting poetic prose, with vivid descriptions of the characters and setting. The story is gripping, realistic and well-plotted from beginning to end. I felt real empathy for many of the characters and was on the edge of my seat for much of the book and then in tears by the end.
The Constant Soldier is yet another novel that I'll be recommending widely (and already have been). It's powerful, heartbreaking and highly thought-provoking - a book that shouldn't be missed.
I received an Advance Reader Copy in exchange for an honest review.