Who would you be in the middle of the world’s worst war? Not somebody else entirely, but what version of yourself do you think you’d evolve into?
Nir Baram’s wide-spanning novel, Good People, answers this question for two protagonists with stark honesty and a fascinating understanding of the frailty of conviction and morality in dark times. A Berlin market research exec and daughter of USSR intellectual dissidents enter the novel’s main stage with grand plans and sturdy hopes for their futures. Unsurprisingly, the war gets in the way, warping our protagonists’ paths and their identities, and punishes them for thinking they could remain free of politics and history’s onslaught at the time.
Sasha persuades herself that working as a literary editor of confessions for Stalin’s secret police is the only way to save her family. Thomas’s thirst for professional success brings him to the attention of the Nazis, and he winds up using his marketing talent on twisted manifestos. Baram sets this up so their failures are unsurprising. They navigate the reign of total evil, and it wears them down. Good People investigates the loss of identity such a terrible power causes, and prompts the reader to consider their own conviction – or lack of – in the face of such woeful domination.
It’s not all outlandish doom and gloom though, the characters remain human. I was struck by the moments of self-centredness found in the novel: office drama ensues, Sasha puzzles over whether her boss, a high-ranking secret police commander, is in love with her in the same moment she worries over the whereabouts of her arrested twin brothers. And when things are at their worst in the book, Baram writes them in a vibrant, personal way, giving a sense of the intimate violence of the time: coming home to find your belongings ransacked and your sense of belonging there shattered. One highlight of these instances is the excellence with which Baram communicates the permanent state of shock of that time and that way of life:
At least a dozen jars of fruit preserves had been hurled against the bathroom wall, and flour mixed with soap powder and blood was strewn all over the sink and lavatory… Between his encounter with Hermann and his gang and climbing the steps to his house, he understood that his mother was no longer living.
Baram throws you into the deep end of the war, but guides you through it with thoroughly realised, flawed, believable characters. The book is also banked on a huge amount of historical research, so it’ll impress seasoned readers of WWII fiction while offering them a new literary slant on it. For readers unfamiliar to the setting, this makes for a nuanced, intensive introduction; The White Review call it a “glimpse into the abyss.”
Good People is published 15 September by Text Publishing Company
9781911231004 p/b £10.99
Post by Heather
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