A Love Story Rudely Interrupted By History
Historical novels make time travelers of all of us. Not just in the obvious way of riding on some character's shoulder through the streets of pre-war London or 1920's Berlin. In the best cases, it's more like a terrible, permanent deja-vu. Great historical novels give us a god's omnipotence, an all-knowing sense of what is coming and what has gone before. They don't coddle, but burden us with the sure knowledge that we can do nothing to alter the flow of time. That bad things are coming, and all we can do is watch.
This is the inherent tragedy that lives at the heart of Peter Behrens' newest novel, Carry Me, which follows the fortunes of two intermingled families through one of the most turbulent times in modern history—England, Ireland and Germany in the first half of the 20th century.
It gives us Billy Lange and Karin Weinbrenner, born just a year apart at the summer home of Baron von Weinbrenner—a fantastically wealthy German Jew—on the Isle of Wight. It also gives us Buck and Eilin Lange, Billy's parents, him German, she Irish, who are live-in caretakers of the property and Buck is the racing skipper for the Baron's yachts.
It gives us summer idylls by the sea, the snap of canvas and the taste of salt spray; the history of Buck's relationship with Eilin (detailed in large part through letters and diaries, which form a side-story to the main narrative) and Billy's with Karin.
It gives us, more than anything, a sense of the destiny that can be etched in coincidences of geography and politics. The power that the land and sea plays in the shaping of futures. Buck is German even though he'd been born at sea, a thousand miles off the coast of Mexico. Billy has a British passport because he was born on the Isle of Wight. Eilin has family still living in Ireland. Karin is the daughter of powerful German aristocrats, but she, too, has British papers because she was born at the summer house. And right from the start we know that being things like English or German, Jew or Gentile—these things can mean life or death in London and Berlin, in 1918 and 1938. From the first pages (a record of Buck's birth, of Billy's, of Karin's youth and Buck and Eilin's first meeting), we can close our eyes and see a terrible history spooling out ahead of us. Scratchy newsreel footage and maps with colored arrows crawling across them. Words like "blitz" and "zeppelin" and "Nazi". We know how things will end before they even begin. Not in the details, perhaps, but in broad strokes.
And yet it's the details that Behrens concerns himself with in Carry Me. His is a war story (a three-war story, really—World Wars I, II and Ireland's Easter Rising) told at a remove, with passages describing not shattered cities, but individual streets, not battles but Nazi brownshirts frog-marching a pantsless Jewish lawyer through the streets of Frankfurt and a haunting zeppelin attack on London recalled only in the firefly sparks of German airmen leaping to their deaths from an airship engulfed in flames.
Buck, with his German passport, is arrested as a spy at the outbreak of World War I, threatened with execution, but spends the duration in an internment camp in England while Eilin and Billy are forced by poverty and circumstance to live with her family in Ireland and arrive just as the rebels mount their attack in Dublin. In Germany in the 1920's, Billy and Karin fall in love (haltingly) and there are ships and racehorses, jazz and stories of the Wild West, which Billy and Karin become obsessed with, and which function as a kind of flawed motif of escape into freedom and open spaces that Behrens doesn't quite drive home.
Behrens is a beautiful, lyric writer. His understanding of the age and command of it, moment to moment, is impressive. What is less so is the arc of Billy and Karin's romance, so often interrupted by war and politics, and their final escape from Germany as it collapses completely into the street-fighting and savagery of Nazism. He states in the first line that this is Karin's story, but that's a lie. A perfectly calibrated one. One that Billy, as narrator, would absolutely tell—wholly in keeping with his obsession with protecting and saving Karin Weinbrenner—but a lie nonetheless. Karin (absent for so much of the novel, unknowable when she is present, and never really given the same life as a character as is Billy, Buck, Eilin or even some of Behrens minor characters like the young SS stooge Gunter Krebs) is merely that thing which drives Billy Lange to act. More symbol than person.
Still, everything is beautiful in the details, in the smallness of personal moments even as we know that no matter how calm, how peaceful the moment, it will not last. That everything will blow up again. That the world and everyone in it will be shattered in a future that the characters can not see coming.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.
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