Book review / Just enough history

THE PARDON OF SAINT ANNE by William Palmer Cape pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
There is often an uneasy tension in historical novels, as in a child whose custody is being fought over by its parents - in this instance, history and fiction. Too much devotion to the past and it becomes a character itself, big and baggy, in whose presence none of the others ever really come to life, despite all their oaths and jabots, their bi-planes and newsreels. Too little history, and it is the characters who irritate you, their petty lives and fictive airs and graces getting in the way of what you really want to know about the era in question.

In his latest novel, set in Germany between the wars and then in occupied France, William Palmer has taken a daring risk with this balance. His characters are a poor lot, neither very good nor bad nor indeed very interesting people who, in any case, mostly wander out of the tale and are never heard of again.

By contrast, the events which take place around them, first in the Rhineland then in Berlin in the Thirties, and finally in France, are bizarre, terrible, titanic; 60 years on they still raise the gravest questions of our century.

The story opens in 1919 in a spa town in the Rhineland occupied by the French and their black colonial troops, "ebony cannibals and rapists" sent deliberately to affront the Germans and to push the burghers off the pavement. Young Walther Klinger lives there with his mother, the timid English widow of a German killed in the war. He develops an early interest in photography, which takes him as a young man to Berlin where he watches the rise of the Nazis with variable misgivings. The war deposits him on the cliffs of Britanny in a surveying unit, where he potters about agreeably enough, taking photographs of coastal defences and so on. On one of his excursions he stumbles on an isolated manor house which contains a beautiful Anglophobic Irishwoman, Julia, with whom he falls in love. Meanwhile the rumble of fate, in the form of the allied armies, is to be heard in the distance ...

It is here that the novel really shows its mettle. It was also just at this point that I temporarily lost the book in an airport transit lounge 9,000 miles from home - a mischance which made me realise how the plot had quietly crept up on me and how very much I wanted to know what was going to happen to Walther.

This surprised me, since Walther has described himself, with accuracy, as "self-serving, vain, callous, with a surface charm, like a shine, to his actions, not particularly pleasant ..." Yet Palmer has hooked the reader in by constructing Walther and his world so coolly and competently. When he is offered the choice between probable death in the field with his comrades or going into hiding in Julia's attic, you wonder why you should care - but you do. The end, when it comes, is cruel, perhaps over-deliberately so. But both history and fiction are satisfied in this tale of an ordinary man locked in his own time.