Gig Review: Jason Hewitt in Bath

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Devastion Road is published by Scribner (Simon and Schuster UK) and is available to buy now.

 

 

Book Review: Devastation Road

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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.