The Dynamite Room by Jason Hewitt
Simon and Schuster, March 2014
Paperback proof, 374 pages
Review copy from the publisher
A puzzling reading experience, this one. The proof comes replete with glowing recommendations from Nathan Filer (winner of this year’s Debut Costa for The Shock of the Fall) and Samantha Harvey (of The Wilderness fame), and it has been long-listed for the Desmond Elliott Prize this week. But I struggled to get through it: 374 pages dragged by and I had to bribe myself to keep up a steady pace. It wasn’t that I was disappointed or bored as such (although I was a little bit of both); it was more that I was defeated. Defeated by the claustrophobic languor that is integral to the way the book is structured, plotted and peopled, and defeated by the Big Emotions I was clearly supposed to be having and wasn't.
I relished the languor at first and really enjoyed the honesty of the prose. The story begins in July 1940 with eleven year old Lydia Pendell walking towards her parent’s house through a deserted Suffolk village. She is a runaway evacuee, desperate to get away from the Welsh mountains where she has been sent and back to her family. It is a dramatically, apocalyptically hot summer day and everyone Lydia knows seems to have completely disappeared. The streets are deserted, the shop and school are boarded up and Greyfriars, the house where Lydia has lived all her life, is empty and dark. Everyone, from her mother to her pet rabbit, has vanished.
The house smelt unfamiliar. Her feet creaked over the floorboards and the oak panelling was cool to her touch. All the doors from the hallway were closed and she opened them one by one, finding the rooms dark and musty, the fixtures and furnishings indistinct. All the windows were filled with blackout frames.
There are no toothbrushes in the bathroom, no clothes in the wardrobes. Having held her nerve on the lonely complicated train journey, she bursts into tears and locks herself in the attic. She alternates between terror – everyone has been gassed to death! – and half-hearted explanations. Her fear and her attempts to quell it feel real. When, late into the night, Lydia hears someone moving around the house the tension is palpable. When that someone turns out to be a wounded German soldier called Heiden, who holds a pistol to Lydia’s sleeping head before taking her hostage, the suspense becomes delicious.
In hindsight those first 60 pages have the feel of well-trod beloved ground, shaped and smoothed and made good by successive drafts in a way that later parts are not. After this initial promise, it was another 100 pages before I started to wonder if The Dynamite Room was going anywhere much at all.
Trapped together in the sweltering house, the pair become an odd couple. Heiden (who speaks almost perfect English) claims that the German invasion is well underway but that he will protect Lydia so long as she doesn’t leave the house. Lydia has no reason to disbelieve him, and so they agree a truce, spending time together: she makes him a bed, he plays music using her father’s saw. The point of view alternates between them and there are fascinatingly disturbing moments in their captor-captive dynamic. After Heiden hits her Lydia thinks it would be alright if she had to marry him, while he imagines a future in which she is his adopted daughter.
It’s gets claustrophobic very quickly, with just these two characters gingerly stepping around one another. There isn’t a great deal of room for incident. But, in spite of this inbuilt sparseness, the story starts to get baggy and repetitive where it should be taut and precise. Great swathes of text are given over to flashbacks that gradually reveal Heiden’s real purpose, and each time we flick to the past a little bit of the tension in the present is lost. It's like being told you have to stay in a small airless room and then being let out every hour to wander around somewhere else: a German park, or a Norweigian wood, or the beach in Dieppe.
Another problem, I think, lies in the way each memory is treated like a piece of Heiden's character, so that he is gradually built into, rather than revealed to be, the person we know by the end. The memories don’t uncover or recover things about him, they actively shape him into the damaged man Hewitt needs him to be. They don’t feel like events that have happened just because they happened, but like events that need to have happened to make the plot work. So, there is a rape, the murder of children, the accidental death of a lover witnessed by terrible coincidence. Heiden’s life is retrofitted, rather than preconceived; the memories were made for him not from him. Which means that he is increasingly difficult to believe in – much more difficult than Lydia, who has a less doctored past – and becomes a bogeyman. Everyone knows that bogeymen aren’t real and can’t really hurt you. The peril gone, I was disillusioned and lost interest.
I made myself read to the end since I'd got so far, and there was some reward in doing it. It was good to spend more time with Lydia - I think the book would have worked better for me if her's had been the only point of view - and I really did like the final 10 pages, even if they didn't feel earned. But you know a book hasn't been for you when reaching the acknowledgements page is a relief.