The Constant Soldier
by William Ryan
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 realises 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 tantalisingly 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 . . .
The Second World War is reaching its climax, and the Russians are bearing down on Germany.
Paul Brandt, a German soldier, arrives back home from the Eastern Front, battered, broken and racked with guilt. No longer any use as a soldier, he is given a job guarding women prisoners in luxurious huts in his home village. The huts are a refuge for SS officers who manage the concentration camps. Brandt happily takes on the job because he has seen and recognised one of the prisoners. And so begins his journey to find atonement.
This is a beautifully crafted piece of work which is pitch perfect throughout. When you have to lift your head from the book to remove yourself from the scene, you know you are in the hands of a master.
Characters who live and breathe; Brandt himself, never a Nazi, just a young man with conviction, who got himself arrested and drafted into the army. His burgeoning horror and guilt at what he has seen and done and the relationships with people around him now, especially his father, is wonderfully realised.
Neumann, perhaps the most complex character in the book. He threw himself into being a Nazi, with all that that entails, but now is haunted by his deeds and has to live with himself. He is a character that you feel you should despise and yet a whole range of emotions swirl around and things are not so easily defined.
The women prisoners, even though we don’t get to know them as well as the men, stand as a beacon, shining a light into the darkest corner of Nazism and its bullying inhumanity.
The book is thriller-like as the plot moves to its climax. The feeling of the war playing out just around the corner and the fear the Germans feel as the Russians move in and the retribution that they know is coming is palpable.
There is not a wasted word, there is no over-the-top drama, just a beautifully paced story that will have you raging and sobbing at the same time.
An absolute must read for anybody who is interested in the human condition and what it is capable of. But also how the human spirit can soar and survive despite all the odds.