Devastation Road, by Jason Hewitt, is a harrowing yet sympathetically told story of one man’s experience of war and the terrible cost of such conflicts on all involved. It opens with the protagonist waking up in a field with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He is injured but knows not how. The clothes he is wearing do not seem to fit and he carries no means of identification. As hazy memories of home life in Hampshire flit in and out of his aching head he stands up and starts to walk. He joins the tens of thousands of other displaced persons in a Europe torn apart.
The man remembers that he is called Owen, that he worked as an aircraft designer and has a brother named Max. He comes across the bloated bodies of the dead, ransacked homes, and then a teenage boy named Janek who offers him food. Janek is a Czech and they struggle to communicate as neither speaks the other’s language. In amongst the muddle of thoughts and images that come and go, Owen decides he must travel to a place called Sagan, and it seems that Janek will help him to get there.
At Sagan they find a camp that triggers further memories, although it is all but deserted. Both Owen and Janek wish to find their brothers so they decide to head north and west. On the road they meet a girl carrying an infant she is trying to give away. Events unfold and she joins them. Irena speaks several languages so communication is easier, but she offers little about herself.
While travelling towards Leipzig the three learn that Hitler is dead and the war ended. They arrive at the city and view the destruction wrought to achieve this result. Owen wishes to return to England, but Janek and Irena demand that he help them. After all that they have been through his loyalties are torn.
Much has been written about the Second World War. This story keeps the conflict as a backdrop exploring the personal impact on just a few of the people whose lives have been irrevocably altered, who have lost everything they owned and become separated from those they love. In the destruction and confusion it is not always clear who has survived or where they might now be. By focusing on these three individuals amongst the flood of refugees pouring through a ravaged continent it becomes possible to empathise with the reactions to this vast, man made disaster, and to better understand why so many dreadful, smaller events took place.
There is no shirking from the individual barbarisms war can create. In places it is distressing to read but the author avoids judgement, offering up all nationalities as casualties. The anger and desperation of the survivors, the cruelties but also the kindnesses are well evoked. The writing is succinct yet conveys what Owen is suffering with sensitivity. Each of the trio is damaged by their experiences, and their actions, even when horrific, are presented with compassion. Given the refugee situation in Europe today it offers much to ponder.
I was deeply moved by this book yet it is not written to tug on the heart strings. The skill of the author in bringing to life a known history in such a personal way is to be lauded. We need stories like this to ensure that our capacity to empathise is not overloaded by the sheer number and scale of the disasters still happening around the world. The people suffering are individuals, just like us. If we would expect help in their situation, we should be offering it to them.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Scribner.