It is 1940 and eleven-year-old Lydia has run away from the town she’s been evacuated to. She heads back home, only to find her village deserted, her house empty, and her mother gone. The only person there is the German soldier hiding in her house, who holds a gun to her head and tells her she cannot leave.
The Dynamite Room (2014) is Jason Hewitt’s first published novel, and a very good one at that. The whole novel takes place over the course five days, during which Lydia and the soldier are forced together in this house, stuck in the strangest of intimacies. Hewitt effectively reduces the Second World War to a battle on the very smallest scale. The set-up of the novel is brilliant, and the idea well executed, for the use of flashback and memory allows us to travel far beyond the confines of the house, to Germany in the 1930s and the Norwegian campaigns during the war.
Beyond the premise, the characterisation is for me what’s really strong about this novel. The writing is good and the tension well built, although the plot is at times a little confusingly executed. However, the characters are truly well done. The soldier (whose name I won’t reveal in this review) and his complex mental state are cleverly explored. I like how his memories of Eva less us see deeper into him, as does his interest in and love of music. He must have been a difficult character to create, because to understand him we have to recognise him both as he is now and as he used to be before the war. Hewitt is showing the reader a man who has been almost hollowed out, who has been so changed and internally crippled by war that he is a fragment of what he once was. I love that we get a sense of the man the soldier used to be long before we understand who he really is now. It’s a difficult feat, and deftly pulled off.