The Survivors by Kate Furnivall - book review: Meticulously researched, searingly honest and beautifully written
It's easy to forget that VE Day in May 1945 was not the end of the suffering for millions of people living on a continent ravaged by six years of conflict.
The final push to victory for the Allies triggered the biggest mass migration in world history as half the population of Europe struggled to find homes in the chaotic aftermath of the Second World War. Millions of these refugees were crammed into German camps for displaced persons, run by the newly formed Allied Military Government.
And it is in this ‘twilit existence suspended somewhere between night and day,’ a place where lost souls waited for what an unknown future might bring, that historical novelist Kate Furnivall brings us one of her most powerful and haunting novels yet.
Furnivall, who was inspired to write her first book, The Russian Concubine, when she discovered the story of her grandmother – a White Russian refugee who fled to China from the Bolsheviks – has now written ten novels, each one a thrilling adventure harnessing episodes of real history.
And after huge successes with her most recent works, The Liberation and The Betrayal, she is back to break our hearts and keep us on the edge of our seats with the gritty, gut-wrenching, suspense-packed tale of a mother and daughter who have somehow endured the war but now face a battle for their final freedom.
By the autumn of 1945, the Graufeld Displaced Persons camp is a temporary home to 3,200 refugees, each living in ‘a fog of hope and despair,’ each with their own disturbing memories of horror and abuse.
Amongst them are half-Polish, half-English woman Klara Janowska and her daughter, ten-year-old Alicja, who have walked for weeks to get to the camp, which is cramped, dirty and ‘reeked of desperation and need,’ but they still consider themselves to be the lucky ones because they are alive.
Klara’s husband, a pilot in the Polish Air Force, died in action in the early months of the war, along with her parents and brother whose home was hit in a bombing raid. But the mother and daughter have survived and Klara will do anything to get to England and find other members of her family there.
As the horrors of Klara’s war years are slowly revealed, we understand why the camp’s French administrative assistant, Davide Bouvier, finds something attractive but ‘intimidating’ about this gutsy young woman who wears ‘armour plate that wouldn’t bend.’
But the camp isn’t the safe haven that Klara had hoped for, not now she has recognised a man from her past posing as a refugee, a man she knows to be cruel, evil, powerful and ruthless.
And so begins a deadly game of cat and mouse… he knows exactly what she did during the war to save her daughter, and she knows his real identity. She is determined to kill him, but will either of them make it out of the camp alive?
The Survivors is a revealing and harrowing tale of love, danger, courage and betrayal as we join Klara and Alicja in the grim Graufeld Camp and then travel back in time to shocking events in the darkest days of wartime, and their gruelling journey to what they had hoped would be a welcome sanctuary.
Furnivall brings to vivid life the uncertainty, desperation and occasional barbarity of the lost and displaced struggling to survive and losing sight of their morals and humanity in the perilous anarchy left behind by the war.
There is death here, brutality and cruelty, but the light in the darkness is the unbreakable bond between a mother and her child; Klara’s love and determination to keep her daughter alive is matched only by Alicja’s fierce protectiveness for the mother who has sacrificed all for her.
Meticulously researched, searingly honest and beautifully written, this is a story that speaks loudly of evil and suffering, but also of hope, undying love and the hidden strength that lies inside us all.
(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £7.99)