This book was rather frustrating. It started off with a bang – in 1992, somewhere in South America, a young man named Leo wakes up in a hospital to find out that his girlfriend Eleni was killed in a bus accident. He has no memory of the crash, and is utterly overwhelmed with grief. This story then alternates with something completely different – in 1914, a young Jewish man named Moritz, who lives in what would later become Poland, is off to the war to fight for the Austro-Hungarian empire, leaving behind a girl he loves. So the book is about these two men in different eras, whose lives revolve around the memories of the women, and who go on quests spurred on by love – a more physical one in Moritz’s case, a more spiritual one for Leo.
While the idea for the book was nice, I don’t think the author quite pulled it off. The blurb on the back of the book promised that the hidden connection between the two men would be revealed in a stunning climax, but really the nature of their connection was so inevitable and easy to guess there was nothing earth-shattering about it. I wasn’t convinced that these two stories needed to be joined into one volume. The first few chapters of Leo’s story, as he deals with getting Eleni’s body back to Greece for a funeral and slowly recovers the memory of the accident, were very moving and well-written. However, once he returns to England and life goes on, his moping and angst get increasingly less interesting. I think that a prolonged grief, in general, is rather hard to write without sounding tedious.
Another problem is that the secondary characters who pop up at this point – Leo’s parents, his friend Hannah, his eccentric university lecturer with theories about love, universe and electrons – never feel like real, believable people. I’ve also noticed that, in this second half, the writing style at times slips and becomes awkward and forced; Hannah and Leo’s exchanges in particular sound like they were written by someone who’s got no idea how to write believable “edgy” dialogue between two young people.
Moritz’ story is rather more interesting – he ends up being captured by the Russians and sent off to a remote Siberian camp, where he spends a few miserable months before resolving to escape and make his way back to home and his beloved Lotte. Moritz’ journey is long and perilous, and he has to cross the country which becomes engulfed in chaotic civil war after the revolution and rise of the Bolsheviks. Lotte herself, however, is a problem. While Eleni is already dead at the start of the book, it at least gives you a sense of her personality and her relationship with Leo through flashbacks, but Lotte is merely a faceless prize at the end of Moritz’ journey. No joke, the only thing you learn about her is that her family is well-off and that she really liked the pair of shoes Moritz’ father made for her. The entire courtship is covered by a couple of lines; when she promises to marry Moritz once he’s back from the war, I went, um wait what when did they become a couple, did I miss something? As a consequence, though Moritz is a likable character and you do want him to succeed, it was hard to really give a damn about that relationship. At one point, the book does acknowledge the fact that Moritz loves a memory of a girl he’s known for a very short time and hasn’t seen in ages, but still, I wish his lady love wasn’t such a cypher. I got far more emotionally invested in the unlikely friendship between Moritz and Kiraly, an abrasive and foul-mouthed Hungarian soldier, which develops after both men are captured. Overall, I just wish that the author ditched Leo altogether and concentrated more on the other storyline – as the epilogue reveals, it really was the main reason for this book to be written.