Hewitt’s war novel begins as an eleven-year-old girl called Lydia walks into a village across the East Anglian flatlands. Her only possessions are her heavy suitcase and her box for her gas mask. The sun blazes over the top of her shoulders,
and the thick, humid air comes in off the salt flats. Lydia’s mother has not returned; neither has her brother, Alfie, nor her father. The only missives Lydia gets are from her
mother, who writes of WVS meetings and her disastrous fruitcakes.
Like many novels of its genre, The Dynamite Room quickly becomes a constant battle between atmospheric beauty, a legitimately puzzling plot, and a fascinating premise. Lydia’s Suffolk town was a kind of utopia--that is until the threat of the German invasion caused everyone to be evacuated. Lying in her bed in the house called Greyfriars and hearing the sound of bombers droning overhead, Lydia remembers how she was packed off to Wales. Then she spies a man holding a pistol, the barrel pointed towards her. His uniform reminds Lydia of the Essex regiment, yet he’s anything but a benign Englishman. Frightened and hungry, Lydia hears
only the sound of her own breathlessness and then her sudden sobbing tears.
Claustrophobic and oppressive, this novel is about connections found and lost and remembered years later and about the tribulations of war in the face of unexpected, tragic consequences. As Lydia and the German called Heiden begin their delicate dance of jailor and captive, their fear cuts a bloodless swath through the marshes, the mudflats, the beaches, the coiling wires and concrete blocks, the pillboxes and buried mines. What had happened here? Are the fields and marshes and woods and villages actually awash with German soldiers? Heiden watches Lydia constantly, threatening to kill her if she tries to escape. All the while he senses her listening to him as he listens to her.
Using words to breathe life into his characters, Hewitt leaves us with a feeling of intense intimacy as his narrative circles around two people plunged into the heat of the battle, devoid of all reasoning and sense. Heiden’s mission is to stay focused and calm; as Greyfriars’ sense of space gradually settles around him, the House proves to be not all what he expected. For Lydia, no matter what happens in the hours and days to come, there will always be a part of her secrets that nobody can take.
The tension in the story derives from this dynamic game of cat-and-mouse between Lydia and Heiden in a world where war has tipped ethics, existence, and common sense on its head. Heiden becomes fixated on his memories: a farm house in Poland where three children were shot dead; the town of Narvik where he watched as his men raped a woman while he did nothing about it; a name on a map and a memory of a conversation held with an English novel officer; and a naked boy half buried in snow.
Plagued by children’s faces in the dark, Heiden recalls his beloved Eva and their days in Berlin, where in his ramshackle garret room, she seduced him with her bright eyes and kisses.
Although I felt a bit manipulated by the plot, I thought Hewitt’s prose flowed invisibly, making it impossible not to fall completely into the story. Heiden becomes fixated on the workings of Greyfriars, fanatically looking at maps of the surrounding area. His nightly ruminations provide Lydia a distraction from the danger at hand. Well aware that her life is on the line, her only thread of hope for survival is to hide in Alfie’s bedroom while clinging helplessly to her brother’s memory. Hewitt excels in conveying Lydia and Heiden’s isolation as their steady dance of death unfolds. Holding a gun to Lydia’s head, it becomes easy to see that Heiden is both physically and psychologically damaged.
Entering the minds of the injured soldier and the frightened girl who never envisioned what it meant to be shot at or to be held prisoner in such a beautiful, bucolic place, Hewitt draws a reasoned picture of cruelty and tragic futility. As the pages unfold and the layers become deeper, the characters’ emotions and actions linger in our thoughts as Lydia and Heiden become fraught with the desire to not only survive, but to live.