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.
Another interesting layer of this novel is the relationship between Lydia and the soldier, and how each perceives it. The soldier clearly views their relationship as that of man and child, but Lydia sees them as man and woman. She imagines growing older and growing to love him, thinking almost reluctantly that she could marry him one day if they were the last people left. She is almost sexually attracted to him, although at twelve years old it’s not quite so clear cut as this. For a while I was a little uncomfortable with this aspect of the book, but on reflection it feels natural, perhaps an honest reflection of the feelings of this child who is trying so desperately to grow up, to be not a girl but a woman.
Of course there are a lot of novels about the Second World War, but The Dynamite Room does something very different with the familiar themes and settings. For one, we get this paired-back drama of two opposing individuals stuck together in a shared space. Moreover, the soldier’s experience of war is not the one we are most familiar with. Through Eva, Hewitt explores the fate of psychiatric hospitals in Germany in the 1930s, and through the soldier’s wartime experience, we’re taken to Norway during the war, a campaign I knew next to nothing about, and certainly haven’t seen dealt with in many novels. By focusing on these specific and perhaps often forgotten aspects of World War II, the novel offers a new perspective.
The Dynamite Room feels intensely cinematic to me. I’m not normally a very visual person (I always know what a character’s voice sounds like in my head, but never what they look like). Yet for some reason I found myself seeing so much of this book. It may be because of the tension between these two characters, or the way the snapshot of their pasts build our perception of them, perhaps because Hewitt’s also an actor and scriptwriter – but the novel feels very dramatic. We have two individuals moving around in one house, often avoiding one another; it’s cleverly staged, and this acts a great tool for building tension and suspense. I raced through the novel, reading the second half in one sitting.
It certainly is a gripping novel, especially the climax. I’ll admit that I found the last quarter of the novel a little less convincing. At times it is confusing and perhaps almost hurried. We never seem to get a full explanation for why the village has been emptied, nor where Lydia’s mother has gone. It’s unclear if Lydia stays put because she is afraid of the soldier or because she really thinks that Britain is now occupied by Germans, as he would have her believe. Nor did I fully understand the soldier’s motivation in his final plan. I haven’t yet decided whether I really think this matters. While reading I was willing to overlook this simply because the book is so compelling, the characters so engrossing. And in a way perhaps it is quite right for the soldier to act in this illogical manner. War, after all, is not logical.
It’s an exciting, fresh and moving novel, brought to life by Hewitt’s strong characterisation. If the plot ever falters, the book is charged with such emotion that you find yourself willing to overlook any doubts. You get so caught up in these great characters that you believe in the story, simply because you believe in them.
Greatest strength: The original set up and the two complex and human characters Hewitt creates.
Greatest weakness: At times the plot did confuse me. Hewitt does manage to pull off the soldier’s plan at the end, but only just – and if it wasn’t for the strength of the soldier’s character and our interest in his mental state, I’m not entirely sure that we’d believe the action of the final section.
Let’s finish on a quote: War was a long and arduous slog. It dug at the back of your heels, and pinched and rubbed and cut and gnawed, and hung heavy from your shoulders, and ragged you to the ground. It was better not to think of yourself as human.
Everything is being uprooted. Even the park lampposts.
Next week: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tart