Friday, October 09, 2009

Night of Flames by Douglas W Jacobson

In 1939 the Germans invade Poland, setting off a rising storm of violence and destruction. For Anna and Jan Kopernik the loss is unimaginable. She is an assistance professor at a universitry in Krakow; he, an officer in the Polish cavalry. Separated by the war, they must find their own way in a world where everything they ever knew is gone.

Anna's father, a prominent Polish intellectual, is deported to a death camp, and Anna must flee to Belgium where she joins the Resistance. Meanwhile, Jan escapes with the battered remnants of the Polish army to Britain. When British intelligence asks him to return to Poland in an undercover mission to contact the Resistance, he seizes the chance to search for his missing wife.

Though the long night of Nazi occupation, Anna, Jan, and ordinary people across Europe fight a covert war of sabotage and resistance against the overwhelming might of the German war machine. The struggle seems hopeless but they are determined to take back what is theirs.
At the beginning of the year Anna and Serena announced the War Through the Generations reading challenge, focusing on WWII. Very early on in the challenge, they featured posts from Douglas Jacobson, author of Night of Flames, where he talked about some members of the resistance in Belgium. I think I had heard of Night of Flames before that, but it was definitely those guest posts which convinced me that I needed to read the book. I am certainly glad that I did so.

The main characters in Night of Flames are Anna Kopernik, daughter of a university academic and her husband, Jan who is a Polish cavalry officer. With the inevitable onset of war with Germany, Anna and Jan have been separated for quite some time when the novel opens. Anna is in Krakow when the city is bombed. She barely escapes with her life, and it is the start of the first of many close shaves for her as she tries to survive along with her Jewish friend Irene and Irene's son Justyn, starting with a nightmarish drive back to her home in Warsaw.

When she returns home she finds that her father has been arrested, and that due to some tenuous links with resistance groups she too is a target of the German authorities, Anna must use those links to find a way out of Poland quickly.

Meanwhile, Jan is fighting battles against the German enemies, often mismatched. There is one scene where the Polish cavalry is on horseback riding through a forest when the German airplanes start firing on them. My heart was racing as I read through that scene.

As the separation lengthens, both Jan and Anna find themselves outside of their homeland, involved in organisations devoted to fighting against the Germans in different countries. The story begins to encompass the actions of the resistance in Belgium, and for Jan, details of how a Polish officer becomes involved in work behind enemy lines as orchestrated by the British armed forces.

When, as part of his undercover work, Jan finds himself in Poland, he begins the search to find out what has happened to his wife. The question is can he do what he has been ordered to, survive and find his wife. And will she survive her own trials for long enough to be found.

For all that I enjoyed this book, there were some flaws. The most obvious was the introduction of several different points of view. For example, early on, there are just a few pages which are told from the point of view of a German soldier. Whilst I got what the author was trying to achieve with these brief interludes, some times they were a distraction. To be fair, at the moment I am reading another book with a WWII setting at the moment, and the author uses the same multiple view points, some of which are stronger than others.

I also found some of the events, particularly in relation to Anna in the later stages of the book to be a bit cliched, but by that time was emotionally invested enough in the characters, particularly Anna, so that I just wanted to know what happened next.

Overall this was a good read with vivid scenes, some relatively unknown history and a fascinating look at life inside the Resistance organisations, particularly in Belgium. So often, WWII literature use France as their location, so it was a change to read about Poland and Belgium.

I enjoyed it very much and I hope to read more from this author. If you are looking for an interesting read about WWII, or a book to read for the War Through the Generations reading challenge, then this book would be worth taking a look at!


  1. I'll be reading this later in the month for the challenge and a book tour. I am looking forward to it.

    Thanks for mentioning the challenge, and I'm glad the guest posts inspired you to read his book

  2. I read in the last two weeks two great books on the WWII era. Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne-I also watched the movie based on the book-it leaves out a few things and changes the ending a bit but over all a good movie. I loved both of these books.

  3. I like reading WWII books that give us a different perspective. Sounds good.

  4. I don't read many books that take place in WWII, mostly because I don't like that many battle-type books. Though I find that era fascinating (and horrifically sad). This seems like a really good idea for a reading challenge, though.

  5. I've found it incredibly interesting to talk to the few Polish friends we've made over here in Ireland. I never appreciated the tragedy of that nation quite as much as I did when I learned the full story of that sad and torn country.

  6. I read this last year and ended up not being that crazy about it. I think you make some really valid points about the multiple narrators and the cliched elements regarding Anna. I really liked your review, it really helped me see it from another perspective.

  7. I really enjoyed this one, but I see what you mean about the multiple points of view. I'll get this review on the challenge blog soon.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  8. We've linked to your review at the War blog here:

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