The stories of three ordinary Germans and how war – and World War II in particular – impacts on their lives forms the basis of Rachel Seiffert’s debut novel.
Born with a non-serious congenital condition – a missing muscle in his chest – Helmut is a boy who is sidelined by sport-playing schoolfriends and, as a young adult, is unable to join the German army at the outbreak of war. Instead, an embarrassment to his working-class, Nazi party member parents, Helmut stalks the streets as a photographer, documenting the slow depopulation of Berlin.
Lore is a young teenage girl given the responsibility of taking her siblings across a Germany decimated by war and zoned by the Allies. With parents arrested as senior members of the Nazi party, Lore needs to keep heads low and find a way from Bavaria to the northern port of Hamburg and the home of her grandmother.
The longest story is that of Micha who, in 1997, researches the role his beloved grandfather, Opa, played as a Waffen SS member stationed in a small Belorussian village. Alienating his family in the process, travelling alone to the village on three separate occasions, Micha becomes obsessed with the need to identify and face the truths of the past.
The Dark Room is a fascinating, if somewhat uneven, exploration of guilt, innocence, truth and morality. He never fires a shot, but how culpable is the patriotic Helmut? Micha meets Jozef in Belarus, a collaborator who did not believe the anti-Semitic propaganda even as he murdered Jews – it was simply ‘a lie that made sense.’ For him, 40 years later, there is no point where apologising can bring redemption, such is the gravity of his actions. In the strongest narrative, as Lore finally arrives with her siblings in an almost unrecognisable Hamburg, it is the grandmother who asks her young charges not to judge their parents. ‘They are good people. They did nothing wrong.’ Micha would strongly disagree with such a comment 40 years later.
Deceptively simple in style, The Dark Room is a provocative read that was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize – but which lost out to Peter Carey and True History of the Kelly Gang.