This is a superb book written in clear, flowing prose featuring exquisitely drawn characters. Unworldly but wealthy wannabe socialist sets out hitch-hiking across Europe with innocent but pragmatic James. They meet a concert-cellist and, on a whim - both personal and whim of fate - they divert to Prague at the climax and, it turns out, tipping edge of Czechoslovakia's brief but thrilling flirtation with freedom under the Soviet boot. There they meet Sam, an official with the British consulate, and his Czechoslovakian girlfriend, Lenka. Their lives are intertwined as the geo-political events follow their course. Despite knowing what happened to the Prague spring this reader was kept enthralled by the will-they-won't-they sequence of events. History, sexual wakening, self knowledge, selfishness and selflessness, patriotism, duty to self and society, professional versus personal responsibility are all woven into the fine tapestry of this novel. It is on the very short list of books I intend reading again.
I do not understand why Simon Mawer does not have a higher profile among contemporary British novelists. I am sure his novels sell well, and they are always well received by the critics, but for some reason his name does not seem as prominent or as widely recognised as it should be. Indeed, even though this book was well reviewed in The Times, it was buried away in a composite review of recent crime novels or thrillers, rather than meriting a dedicated review of its own.
That is a shame, because I fear that too few readers will have the opportunity of enjoying his work, all of which I have found very rewarding. He seems to have been mining a particularly rich seam recently, and this latest book is a fine addition to his oeuvre and can happily sit alongside such great novels as The Glass Room, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky and Tightrope.
Those previous three books were set in, or at least related heavily to, the Second World War. This latest one, as the name suggests, is set in 1968, and addresses the events leading to the Warsaw Pact ‘intervention’ in Czechoslovakia where a surge of liberalisation was threatening the totalitarian status quo.
Mawer tells his story principally through the agency of two couples. Ellie and James are students at Oxford, from starkly contrasting family backgrounds, who decide to spend the long vacation hitchhiking across the continent, without a fixed itinerary but with a vague hope of getting as far as Italy. As they travel, and as their relationship develops, they take instead to determining their route by tossing a coin. This brings them into contact with various people, including an eminent cellist who tells them that she is shortly to go to perform at a special festival in Prague. Ellie and James decide to alter their route with a view to seeing her concert there, and to try to capture some of the spirit of emancipation that they have heard is prevalent there.
Sam Wareham is an ambitious diplomat working in the Chancery office of the British embassy in Prague. We first encounter him saying goodbye to Stephanie, his girlfriend, who also works in the Embassy but has been reposted to London. Very soon, however, Sam encounters Lenka Konechkova, a Czech student and aspiring journalist, and they quickly establish a close relationship, which provides Sam with a valuable insight into the hopes and ambitions of the young Czech population which is taking advantage of concessions allowed by the current government led by Dubcek. There is, however, already a sense of menace as armed forces from each of Czechoslovakia’s Warsaw Pact neighbours mass around its borders.
Mawer’s gift as a writer is to snare the reader’s attention completely. His characters are well drawn and plausible: each of them is flawed in one way or another, but that somehow renders them more, rather than less empathetic. Ellie is reckless and domineering; James is consumed by northern inverted snobbery and actively looks for slights over which to fume; Sam is desperately ambitious but also slightly pompous; Lenka is headstrong and rather reluctant to compromise. The story fairly races along, and the various plotlines are pulled together very deftly. Of course, we all know what happened and how the political situation was resolved, but wondering how that will impact upon the individual characters simply offers additional savour.
This is another very enjoyable and well crafted book from Simon Mawer.
Set in the summer of 1968, this is about two couples who get caught up in the events of Prague Spring, when reform briefly came to Czechoslovakia before the Russians moved in and took control. Ellie and James are students at Oxford who are spending the summer travelling round Europe and who come to Prague on a whim. Sam is a First Secretary at the British Embassy who has fallen in love with Lenka, a Czech student. They are all caught up with enthusiasm that change is in the offing, but the reality of course is that the Czechs will be screwed as they have been so many times in years ending with an 8.
This is the third book I've read by Simon Mawer. He's a skilful writer and this is a very well written book. I liked it, but I didn't love it. It takes an awfully long time to get going - really, it's not until after the halfway mark that it gathers any momentum - and I simply did not care about any of the four central characters. And the ending, which leaves the fate of one of them unknown, is really frustrating! Every now and then he takes a chapter out to give us a lecture on Czech history which admittedly is interesting, and adds to our understanding of the situation, but it's still an odd approach and I'm not sure it was entirely successful.
The summer of 1968, and Europe is in political ferment. Sam Wareham is a British diplomat in Czechoslovakia, who starts a rather ill-advised affair with a minor Czech dissident – Lenka Konečková, when his girlfriend is posted back to the UK. As the Czechs feel their way to a new non-authoritarian socialist freedom (“socialism with a human face”), the writing is clearly on the wall for them as the Soviet Union and the rest of their fraternal allies in the Warsaw Pact express their concerns about the loss of Communist Party authority in the country. In a parallel story – James Borthwick and Ellie Pike are undergraduates at Oxford, and decided to go hitchhiking around Europe in the summer vacation. The besotted James can hardly believe his fortune that the attractive Ellie wishes to spend so much time with him; while he is a more prosaic Yorkshireman, studying science and from a modest background, Ellie is reading English, has wealthy parents and is a feisty personality Their peregrinations take them through Western Europe towards Prague and, as the reader, soon understands, a meeting of the ways with the other main protagonists in the novel as James and Ellie arrive in Czechoslovakia. A theme of the novel is the role of chance in life – Ellie and James resort to making some of their decisions about their route by simply tossing a coin, and following the direction dictated by the random fall of heads or tails. Life can just be a question of being in the right, or indeed wrong, place at a certain time. This is a very well written and captivating story, immersed in the late 1960s when so much seemed possible, yet when hopes could be crushed by the Soviet behemoth, which was only to last for another two decades.