The Kingdom of Ashes by Robert Edric

28/07/07, The Times

He is prolific – 17 novels in 22 years – and promiscuous in his choice of genres: historical fiction, thriller, psychological realism, all have been done by him with ease, lucidity and intelligence. So it is no surprise that Robert Edric’s bleak take on the Second World War, The Kingdom of Ashes, adds a new kink to the familiar narrative graph of the ravages of war novel. At first sight it looks inspired by the work of the controversial German historian, Jörg Friedrich, who wrote about the war from the perspective of ordinary, suffering Germans caught up in the Allied bombing, but on closer look, Edric’s book measures, with savage calibration, the Spanish practices rife within the post-war prosecutors of German war crimes – the British, Americans and Russians.

Set in a small town, Rehstadt, in 1946, while the Nuremberg Trials are under way just 300 kilometres away, it tells the story of twenty-something Captain Alex Foster who, under the megalomaniac Colonel Dyer of the British ‘Assessment and Evaluation’ centre, is looking into lesser war crimes and deciding on the fates of their suspected perpetrators. Unclouded truth seems a very difficult thing to sift out from the interrogation reports. He meets Eva Remer, daughter of the former mayor of Rehstadt, and falls in love with her, effectively getting caught in the crosscurrents of the deadly dynamics between victor and vanquished. As the Americans enter the picture, Alex realises that he is expected to rubber-stamp decisions already taken, rather than arrive at any semblance of objective truth, to preserve an illusion of forms and protocol observed. But Rehstadt has its own simmering hatreds and secret histories and, as these surface, collisions between the tensions and skullduggery of the victors and the conflicts of the defeated become inevitable, leading to an explosive, devastating ending.

This is an unillusioned book, Brechtian in its stripping down of all ideals and heroism from the morality of war to expose its cynical, unsavoury heart. (Indeed, the petty war-profiteer, Jesus Hernandez, is a direct allusion to Mother Courage). It is a shame that the book is somewhat let down by a style so extremely laconic that it leads to lacunae that compromise both narrative roundedness and credibility of characters: Alex has no past, his interiority serving oddly to make him a kind of black hole, while some of the others, such as Dyer and Hernandez, remain locked in a flat unidimensionality.