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The Ministry of Fear
on 6 April 2014
This novel has one of the best opening chapters of any novel I have ever read. Arthur Rowe is a repressed and guilt ridden man, living out the war in a London boarding house with little companionship. So, when he comes across a rather sad little wartime fete, he is eager to recall the memories of childhood it evokes. During the fete, a misunderstanding means that he wins a cake. However, the cake was never meant for him and his sudden lucky prize has consequences he could never have anticipated.
This book was published in 1943 and, in it, Graham Greene paints an evocative picture of a war weary population. Arthur Rowe is bombed more than once during the novel and many of the people he comes across have a furtive, nervous air about them. London has been reduced to almost a series of small villages, with people having to consider whether or not they have time to cross the city before the sirens go. However, the blitz is not the only problem Arthur Rowe faces. He finds that he possesses something that the Germans want and they will use any means to acquire it. In fear of his life, Rowe tries to investigate the organisers of the fete and meets Anna Hilfe and her brother Willi; Austrian refugees, who seem to believe his outlandish story.
Although, in essence, this is a story which has been told before – the innocent man who somehow becomes involved in espionage and murder- rarely has it been told as well as this. Despite the danger, Arthur Rowe is a man who gradually begins to engage with the world around him again. This is a disturbing novel in places; a tale of coming to terms with guilt, the weight of memory, of love and loyalty. Although the main character is mild-mannered and bookish, he has a disturbing past and is suddenly motivated to try to find a future. This is not one of Graham Green’s most talked about novels, but it deserves to be. As a novel of wartime, it is fascinating as a portrait of a city which is battered, but certainly not beaten and I am glad that I have discovered it.