Book Review: Walking Wounded

By Sheila Llewellyn

waling wounded

“Daniel stared at the white-ish brain matter clinging to the haft and clogging up the eye of the needle. Can it really be as easy as that – to scrape out someone’s depression, their melancholy, their anxiety? To scrape out someone’s emotions?”

So assured is Sheila Llewellyn’s writing, one would never guess Walking Wounded was her first novel. Her portrayal of the emotional devastation caused by armed conflict, and the often unintentional misery brought about by misguided attempts to repair the damage is staggeringly accomplished.

Set in Birmingham’s once highly influential Northfield Military Psychiatric Hospital, it is tempting to conclude we are entering Pat Barker terrain – a writer well known for focusing on themes of memory, trauma, survival and recovery. Like Barker, the author has an uncanny ability to evoke the appalling mental anguish induced by war, she is seemingly able to fathom the suppressed male subconscious, and many of her characters are based on historic figures – but there the similarities end.

Inspired by her own experience of treating victims of PTSD in Northern Ireland, the author’s narrative switches back and forth between the fictitious characters: psychiatrist Daniel Carter and Corporal David Reece. It is 1947 and both doctor and patient have been profoundly damaged by their ordeals, but they also have the subliminal power to heal one another.

From the morale-destroying Burma Campaign to life in the old industrial city of Manchester (just before and immediately after the Second World War), Llewellyn’s historical and topographical research is scrupulous yet subtle. Speaking personally, as the daughter of a Mancunian who lived through the period described in this novel, I find her descriptions of the Manchester Blitz, and of The Manchester Guardian’s candid reporting of the Nazi atrocities, particularly fascinating

Walking Wounded is a brilliantly crafted, often harrowing, powerfully intense piece of work, which deserves to win awards. I hope very much that Sheila Llewellyn plans to write a second novel.

Many thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for gifting an advance copy of this title.

Book Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

by Heather Morris

In late 1942, when Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov passed through the most notorious gates in modern history, he was a healthy, bright, outgoing young man with a penchant for the company of women. To reach his destination he had travelled for two days on an overcrowded cattle train from Prague without access to food, water or toilets. From this point on he became Prisoner Number 32407 at Auschwitz II–Birkenau, and having survived the initial selection and a serious bout of typhus, he was put to work as camp tattooist.

He had been manager of a fashionable department store in Bratislava when the Slovak Government decreed that every Jewish family living in his home town of Krompachy should send one child over the age of eighteen to work for the Germans. He was multilingual, quick to learn and adored his mother, so offered himself up for transportation in the hope of protecting his family.

Lale did what had to be done to survive, but he also boosted morale and saved inestimable lives by appropriating food and medical supplies from under the noses of the SS Death’s Head Units. He was naturally empathetic, well liked by his fellow prisoners and held out to the end with his dignity and integrity unblemished. More amazingly, perhaps, is that he developed a deep and enduring love for a women he had branded upon entering the camp.

When the writer Heather Morris met him in 2003 he was an elderly businessman living in Australia. They became unlikely friends and she saw that he “might just have a story worth telling”. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is the remarkable, percipient, utterly unforgettable novel she based on Lale’s experiences as camp tätowierer.

Although a natural optimist with a tremendous zest for life, Lale feared history might remember him as a Nazi collaborator, which is why he agreed to tell his story. He died on 31st October 2006, aged 90, believing to the end that, “If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day.”

Many thanks to Bonnier Zaffre for supplying an advance copy of this title for review.