The One Man by Andrew Gross is a gripping historical thriller set during WW2. It is full of suspense, secrets, and sorrow. But then, what novel set in Auschwitz could find a way to not be sorrowful? It is not without hope, though. All the way right up until the end, Gross manages to convey the hope that is coursing through the main characters. And it is unclear how it's over until it's actually over.
If you read my blog regularly, you know I try to not reveal spoilers. I'll also be as vague as I can about this book. So, mostly, structure and feel, without a lot of plot details. The basic premise of the book is that the US government is trying to sneak a soldier into Auschwitz to find a physicist who is vital to the war effort. They want to sneak him out and bring him back to the US to join the Manhattan Project.
For perspective, it is in third person, past tense, with many different people being followed. The novel is bookended with present day--a father in a VA hospital, telling his daughter the story of his time in the Army in WW2. We don't know who he is at the start, but we do know for sure at the end.
The feel of the book is both hopeful and tragic. I had to stop reading many times while I was in the midst of the perspective of a Nazi. I'm not Jewish, but I've always felt that not being part of a group should never preclude me from caring about them. I've long had a deep sympathy for the Jewish people who had to live through the Holocaust and an even deeper sadness for those who did not make it. Hell, I even used to study Krav Maga, the Israeli system of martial arts created after the re-establishment of Israel.
The structure of The One Man was a bit haphazard. It was not straight through, in chronological order. It bounced around a bit in time, but it was always clear at the beginning of each chapter when and where we were seeing. A linear order would not have worked for this novel. Details were revealed in the order that we needed to know them. It was a great tool for building the suspense.
At one point in this novel, a Nazi in charge at Auschwitz was gloating over killing 21,000 people a day, but he didn't see them as people--just as numbers, a quota. I put down the book and sobbed. My local amphitheater holds 18,000 people and I've been to sold-out shows there before. I've seen 18,000 people crowded together and to be reminded that more people than that were killed on a daily basis at just one of the concentration camps ripped me to shreds. I can't even imagine how awful it was for him to write those chapters from the perspective of Nazis. I've written serial killer fiction before, but that's just imaginary. This--the Holocaust, Auschwitz, wicked Nazi bastards beating people and murdering them--was all real.
The research for this book was fantastic. I spent many years of my life not reading fiction at all. From my mid-teens to my mid-twenties, I read for research--for knowledge. I couldn't afford to go to a regular college, so I just read about things I wanted to learn about. Religions, history, languages, mythologies, and so much more. I have a perpetual thirst for knowledge that will never be quenched. (Which is why I refer to myself as a jack of all trades and a master of jack shit.) Of course, the main events of the novel are fiction, but the peripheral events are all based on facts. The beatings, the shootings, the sheer terror of daily life inside of Auschwitz. Then there's the science, and the math, the chess, the languages, and more. I absolutely love how well researched this book was.
My own grandfather was too young to be in the Army during WW2. He joined in 1950 and he was sent to Japan, to use his carpentry skills to help rebuild after the atomic bombs. That's all we ever knew. Grandpa went to Hiroshima. To his dying day, he never shared details of what happened to him over there. Once, when I took him to the VA hospital for treatment because I was dissatisfied with his regular doctor, I heard all I ever needed to hear to know that I'd never ask him about Japan again. The doctor asked him if he ever had dreams or nightmares about the things he'd seen overseas. He wept. My tough, old grandpa, whom I'd seen shed a tear only twice in my whole life, cried and was only able to say "Yes" around his choking tears. I'd learned in school about the shadows on the walls, the crippled population, and I remember hearing that the scars on the people were more evident than on the land. I let him keep his secrets, even though my thirst for knowledge about his own life was growing as his life was waning. The opening and closing sections of this book made me think of my grandfather and his own need to keep his secrets until his dying day.
I'll not reveal the ending of this novel. But, it was unexpected. I can't say I loved it. I can't say I hated it, either. But I can say that it was exactly what it needed to be. This book could not have ended any other way than how it did. It was wonderfully written, and I highly recommend this epic historical thriller.