Hugo Hamilton's `The Last Shot' tells the story of a young German woman, Bertha Sommer, and Franz Kern, a German soldier, who are both stationed in Laun, a small, Bohemian town between Prague and Dresden, in the final days of the Second World War. Europe is in ruins, Hitler is dead, the resistance movement in Czechoslovakia is planning the liberation of Prague, and the Russian army is advancing. However, the Reich is holding fast and orders have been given that any German soldier caught deserting or trying to flee, will be hanged on the spot. 'A war is only over when the last shot has been fired'.
Bertha and Franz, who have become friendly whilst working in the same garrison in Laun, long to return home and so Franz makes plans for them to escape; however the plan falls through and they have to make alternative arrangements, the whole time worrying about what will happen to them if their plans are discovered. If they are caught escaping by their own side, they could be executed; if they stay until the Russian army arrives in Laun, they know they will receive very harsh treatment. The couple decide to wait until the evacuation of the town is ordered and, once that happens, they flee together, facing difficult situations ahead as they encounter marauding Czech soldiers desperate to return to their homeland. It is then, as Bertha and Franz fall in love with each other, that they realize their longed for escape is not all they hoped and dreamed it would be.
Running alongside Bertha and Franz's story in a double narrative, some forty years later, a young American in Germany sets out on a mission to discover the time and place of the last shot fired in the war and, as his research leads him closer to the story of Bertha and Franz, he discovers more than he planned for - not just about the last few days of the war, but also about his own heritage and identity.
Hugo Hamilton seems a natural storyteller and this novel, quiet in tone, but darkly romantic, moves smoothly between the two periods of time. His prose is delightfully simple, but has an emotional richness which draws you into the story easily and effortlessly. I very much enjoyed reading this novel, but I must say that when I got to the end of the book I felt that something was missing - it was almost as if the author had originally planned a longer novel but had decided to condense his story into a brief 175 pages. It can be a good thing to leave your readers wanting more - however, as this novel has a double narrative, I thought it should have been a little longer and I felt rather unsatisfied by what appeared to me to be a rather abrupt ending. That's not to say I was disappointed by this book, because I wasn't, and I would certainly read more by this author - in fact I have The Speckled People on one of my bookshelves waiting to be read - but it does mean I could not award more stars for what is a well written and interesting story.
3.5 Stars - which by my rating scale means `Rather Good'