The Constant Soldier by William Ryan – review

Published by Mantle

Publication date – 25 August 2016

Source – Netgalley review copy



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 thanks to the publisher for my review copy of this book.

Paul Brandt is returning to his home town, horribly injured whilst fighting the Allies on the front in the East. As he returns home, passing the SS Rest Hut he sees one of the women prisoners. Shocked he realises it is the woman he fell in love with, whilst part of a political resistance movement years earlier. Already haunted by his role in her arrest, and by the guilt of his actions whilst in combat, Paul vows to find a way to help the woman prisoner.

We read war novels with the benefit of hindsight. Although the horrors are known, and the outcome, it adds tension to the narrative, rather than detract from it. The reader knows how the war ends, they know of the atrocities inflicted and its this knowledge that makes the story all the more moving and impacting. I rarely read war novels yet I had heard numerous reviews declaring this book a wonderful read so I had to find out for myself.

It was fascinating to read a novel portraying the war from the German point of view. It is obvious when thought is given that not all of those fighting for Germany would have done so willingly, or would have agreed with the Nazi propaganda. There would have been civilians who were against the war, who were unaware for a long time of the atrocities that were occurring, and that who would have felt powerless to do anything once the extent of the terrible actions that Hitler was inflicting were revealed.  This novel delves into that, exploring the feelings and actions of those living in the shadows of the concentration camps, in a land that was annexed by Germany. William Ryan sensitively and beautifully portrays a country on the brink, coming to terms with the fact that everyone will be impacted by the punishment due to be inflicted by the Allies.

Paul Brandt is the constant soldier in many ways. His injuries are a constant reminder of his time served on the front. His memories constantly haunt him of those he killed whilst under orders. On his return home he finds that he is still fighting, though this time the enemy is different and his fight is a hidden one.

William Ryan has the magical ability to make the reader feel something close to sympathy for some of those characters who deserve none. Nuemann, haunted by his actions in the war, is one such character. His actions at the SS Hut are not enough to garner sympathy, but there is something that moves the reader to hear of his actions, and regrets. There are others whom the reader will feel deserve any punishment that should come their way, disconcertingly so as it is uncomfortable to realise you are wishing for violence to be meted out on someone, albeit a fictional character. Characterisation is strong throughout this novel, from the Partisans who are fleeting, to Commandants of the SS. Paul himself is a complex character. Instinctively he is likeable, driven as he is by his need to atone. His guilt haunts him, yet it is the guilt of a man who was fighting a war he didn’t believe in. It is a guilt by association. It is also what drives him, gives him hope in someway. The rescue of the women prisoners is Paul’s way to seeking forgiveness, from them and from himself.

I rarely read war novels yet I had heard numerous reviews declaring this book a wonderful read so I had to find out for myself. All the plaudits are well deserved. If you miss out on reading this you’ll miss an absorbing, powerful, poetic and emotive novel.

Beautifully written, emotive and moving, this is a wonderfully told story of war, love and redemption. I will be seeking out the other novels by William Ryan, and soon.

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