Yesterday evening I attended my first book event of the Autumn season. With two of my children now up at university I have more time to treat myself to such outings. This first excursion was to Toppings bookshop in Bath where Jason Hewitt was due to hold a local launch for his second published novel, ‘Devastation Road’, which I review here.
I follow Jason on Twitter so had picked up on the fact that he has recently moved from London to Bath. What I had not been aware of was that he has a personal history with the city. Twelve years ago he graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. In the audience were a number of other writers who have either taken this course or are currently attending. There were also published authors, family members and various friends there to support this very personable young man. It was one of the most open and friendly events I have been to. I enjoyed chatting to a variety of attendees both before and after the author’s talk.
Jason opened by explaining why he came to write this book. His first published work, ‘The Dynamite Room’, is also set during the Second World War and he wished to stick with the same period. The challenge was how to tell a story that had not been told many times before. As he was unfamiliar with events in mainland Europe around VE day he decided that others may also have this gap in knowledge. There was scope to inform readers as well as to entertain.
We were treated to three readings from the book. As always it was interesting to hear an author give voice to his characters. Jason is also an actor and was a delight to listen to. He appeared very relaxed in front of his captivated crowd.
The plot explores memory and the impact of its loss. Owen, the main character in the book, wakes in a field with no recollection of who he is or how he got there. When he discovers that he is not in Hampshire, as he first believes, but rather in Czechoslovakia, he determines to make his way back home to England. Thus begins a road trip during which he joins the many hundreds of thousands of other displaced people caught in a war ravaged Europe at that time. His memory gradually returns, snapshots finding context and merging to provide some coherancy to his background.
Jason explained that he wished to evoke the numbness felt by many, particularly in Germany, as the war ended – the surreal atmosphere caused by the pause when survivors wondered what would happen next. The many prejudices did not just disappear. The celebratory atmosphere experienced in Britain was not enjoyed here.
Many people in Germany were just waking up to what had been happening so close to their homes. There was the practicality of how to deal with a vast number of stranded foreigners. There were ill and injured requiring treatment, including those liberated from the dreadful camps. There was the question, reminiscent of the refugee crisis today, of who should pay.
Jason concluded his talk by taking questions from the audience. I wondered if the unusually high quality of these was down to the fact that so many attendees were writers themselves.
He was asked about his research for the book. As a part of this, Jason made the same journey across Europe that his characters took. He aims for historical accuracy in his writing, only veering from fact when essential for the plot. Although entirely fictional, what happened to each character happened to someone for real. Place names have been changed but each location exists.
This fascinating discussion could have gone on much longer but time was called and I took my copy of the book to be signed. I was taken aback to discover as I left the shop that a couple of hours had passed. Time truly does fly when spent in such convivial company.
Devastion Road is published by Scribner (Simon and Schuster UK) and is available to buy now.