Black Swan, £8.99stg
Fans of Jill Paton Walsh will not be the disappointed with her latest offering, 'A Desert in Bohemia'. The former Booker Prize nominee has arguably produced her most ambitious work to date in which she explores the effects of living under a totalitarian regime through the perspective of nine different characters. Set in the fictional Czechoslovakian region of Comenia, the story begins in 1945 and spans over four decades, covering the end of World War II and the rise and fall of Communism.
Through the intertwining lives of several families – some of whom remained in Comenia after the war, others who fled in fear for their safety – Paton Walsh expertly blends historical facts with her unique style of fiction to dramatically portray the political ideology and upheaval of the time. Her characters face different challenges. Those who escaped must deal with their intense feelings of displacement from being in exile while those who stayed behind must cope with a ruthless regime that disregards personal freedom. Despite these contrasting circumstances, their story represents what it was like for ordinary people living through extraordinary times.
Although there is much to admire about 'A Desert in Bohemia', it does have some flaws. The emphasis on the political and philosophical complexities of the characters means their basic emotional responses are somewhat neglected, to the point where the reader may find it difficult to identify with them. More significantly, the "happy ever after" style ending feels contrived and not truthful to what precedes it. This aside, 'A Desert in Bohemia' truly deserves to be read.