Robert Ryan, ‘Night Crossing’

There’s a lot which is interesting in ‘Night Crossing’, and at moments it almost becomes a page-turner. It’s written by someone with a lot of knowledge of the Second World War, and it focuses on issues which are perhaps less frequently dealt with in British fiction, such as the issue of German internees in Britain, and how joining the German military might affect an originally idealistically Nazi young man. Ultimately, though, it seemed to me to be let down by too many vagaries of pace, plot construction and even characterisation.

The biggest problem is that it’s a book which can’t quite make up its mind whether it’s a love story or a thriller. There is of course no reason why it can’t be both, but somehow it isn’t. I think it’s partly a question of pace, which is uneven, not helped by the fact that the story is told in snippets of time with gaps of months or years between. This is never a method of story-telling which appeals to me. Just as I get into a scene, an atmosphere, a time and a character’s reaction to all of them, I’m skipped forward in a way which suggests that the previous chapter wasn’t really important in itself, just a sort of prologue to the next bit. There’s a limit to how many times you can do that to me in the course of one story and retain my engagement.

I also had a problem with viewpoints. The story leaps around, narrating from the viewpoint of several different characters, and as reader I was never quite sure how important each character was, and therefore how much attention I was supposed to be paying to them. New viewpoints were still being introduced quite late into the book. Just as I decided that if a chapter was told from the viewpoint of a particular character then it must mean that character was important, I got a scene between two real-life senior members of the Nazi government (can’t now remember which ones, but I’d heard of at least one of them) which didn’t involve any of the novel’s main characters at all. It’s disorienting.

One reason it didn’t really work for me as a love story was that I thought the central characters were unbalanced. The heroine, Ulrike, is a fully-fleshed, interesting woman. The Inspector who falls in love with her is a character I found much less fully-rounded, because he was defined either by his relationship with his father or by his relationship with Ulrike, and seemed to have very little personality outside those contexts.

More believable, and much more interesting, was Ulrike’s former fiancé Erich. The best bits of the book, for me, were the bits where we were with him in the terrifying underwater world of the U-boat, watching his transformation from idealistic young Nazi to weary sailor who just wants an end to the fighting. There’s a lot of convincing detail in this book, and if you want a novel which gives you another take on aspects of the Second World War this has a lot going for it. War novels which present both sides as human beings are always a good thing. But it didn’t bowl me over.

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