Dennis Bock’s newest novel, The Good German, offers an unexpected revision of the Second World War and its aftermath. In this world, Germany has defeated the allied forces and London has been decimated. Refugees from London, and immigrants from Germany, stream into Canada, and the tensions between these various groups become the central focus of the narrative.
The novel is structured through two main streams. The first moves along slowly as it tracks 12-year-old William Teufel and his family in 1960. The Teufel’s are German, and this places them under suspicion in the small industrial town on the banks of Lake Ontario where they live. The other narrative stream rushes forward on a rapid course following Georg Elser, a middle-aged German man who is unnerved by the developing tensions in his country. In 1938, Georg crafts a plot to kill Hitler and, he hopes, stop the fascist uprising in his country. When Georg’s plan backfires, he is sent down a path of pain, loss, and regret.
Despite their differences in age and experience, both William and Georg are bewildered by the events of their lives. On the cusp of his teenage years, and with one foot still firmly planted in the naivete of childhood, William matures as tensions flare. This intersection of personal growth and political uprising offers a reflection on the impacts of hostility and the ways that ostracization brutalizes one’s sense of self. At one point he wonders: “if I’d ever be as lucky as them to live in a place where you knew you belonged.” This sense of disunity, which affects several characters, is brilliantly woven throughout the text, and Bock beautifully portrays the melancholy of difference and longing.
Because the novel covers different timeframes and outlines a wide path of destruction and change, some readers may find the pacing a bit tricky and the details muddled. In some sections, events that span large chunks of time take place over a few paragraphs. In other places, the nuance of a single feeling spreads itself over a page. Often Bock’s writing is effective in these moments, and causes readers to take stock of their emotions by re-processing the prose. There are areas, though, where I struggled with some loose threads. For example, Mercy House, the hospice for those wounded in London, rests as a constant in the narrative, yet I found myself wondering about the ‘atonement girls’, the lives of the staff and patients, and the spaces of the building itself. Each aspect is gestured to just enough to intrigue, but remains outside the scope of the plot.
That said, the novel is compelling. The United States looms in the background as a superpower working within a politics of purity and extermination. Alongside William’s own sense of unease, his developing understanding of what lies across the lake lends a perpetual aura of impending disaster to the text. This sense feels particularly poignant in our contemporary moment, when brutality, hostility, loss, and tension flood news feeds daily.
Once I fell into the pacing, I found The Good German hard to put down. Georg’s feelings of desperation are particularly well-rendered. He acknowledges that his “endeavor to restore order to the world had only plunged the dagger with more violence into the heart of the nation”, yet he does not stop trying to make his world a better place. Different kinds of violence and loss pockmark the narrative, but people continue to fight for what they believe. For some, this path turns into a selfish search to ease their pain or bolster their power; for others, the journey becomes a selfless attempt to rebuild a sense of place and peace despite the consequences. Mapping a palimpsestic and possible alternate world, The Good German shows that the “truth could be told in different ways”, and asks readers to reflect on the nuances of speculation and the pain that comes with deciding to act in the face of injustice or to quell under a sense of individual ineffectiveness.
About the author: DENNIS BOCK’s book of stories, Olympia, won the CAA Jubilee Award, the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the Betty Trask Award. His novels include The Communist’s Daughter and The Ash Garden, a #1 bestseller, a winner of the Canada-Japan Literary Award and a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Kiriyama Prize and the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. His most recent novel, Going Home Again, was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Dennis Bock lives in Toronto.
- Publisher : Patrick Crean Editions – HarperCollins Canada (Sept. 8, 2020)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 304 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1443460974
- ISBN-13 : 978-1443460972
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