THRILLER Nightmare house call
The Dynamite Room by Jason Hewitt (Simon & Schuster, £12.99) is not destined to be loved by every reader. That’s not to say it isn’t a gripping read; it is simply not the kind of book with universal appeal.
For starters, it’s difficult to get into and only really arrives as a novel 50 pages in, when author Jason Hewitt transforms a story about an abandoned child into an overt psychological drama. And the characters — a young girl from a comfortable English family, and a German soldier — do not come across at this point as engaging or particularly sympathetic.
However, I’m glad I pursued it. There are few new wartime stories left to be told, but this one was entirely original, and brought a new dimension to the concept of the war outside as contrasted with the war at home.
The premise is relatively straightforward. On a burning hot, summer’s day, as war rages in Europe, a girl called Lydia makes her way back to her family home on the south coast. We eventually learn that she is an evacuee, but not why the house she comes back to appears to be abandoned, her mother long gone. Then along comes a lone German soldier, who tells her that Britain has fallen to the Nazis.
As the story progresses, the bond between Lydia and the man who is both her captor and presumed saviour develops. In a particularly poignant moment, she cooks for him, all the while knowing that there is something very, very wrong.
It is captivating, not least because, while we know he is not speaking the truth, the author only slowly reveals what has led the soldier to Lydia’s home. His motives are shrouded in mystery; does he genuinely have Lydia’s best interests at heart, and, if not, what possible reason does he have for taking a child hostage? Hewitt, a first-time author, is adept at building tension and juxtaposing the soldier’s increasingly desperate wartime memories with Lydia’s growing panic.
It’s not a perfect book; nor is it really a story about the Second World War, despite the author’s obvious enthusiasm for research about how Britain approached the possibility of a German invasion. The writing is good, if rather too reliant on moody descriptions intended to build a sense of doom. Then, intriguing threads — such as the Jewish refugee who Lydia’s mother took in, or her brother’s unorthodox love affair — are dangled, but barely explored.
Still, for all these criticisms, days’ later, The Dynamite Room is still on my mind. An isolated English country house; a stranger invading its domestic security; the ever-present threat of war — all ingredients for a good thriller. And that is what Hewitt undoubtedly delivers.