I am always amazed at how much time I have for books that retell the hurt and history of World War II. It’s never a novel I pick up willingly, nor do I completely discard them. Finding them a difficult read emotionally, it must be a hulleva feat to write (and pull it off) a book with such hurt and hunger behind its pages. Enter Once We Were Brother's, first self published by the author Ronald H. Balson and then taken on by St. Martin's Press in the US, and already gauging interest in Hollywood - already being optioned for film.
There is a line in this novel (I think it was page 179?) ‘We must never allow the world to forget’ and we shouldn’t, but having read Two Brothers by Ben Elton, a masterpiece of fiction in my opinion.
It is the story of Otto and Ben that left much to be desired. The story starts off with Elliot Rosenzweig, a much respected civic servant and ultimate hero of Chicago, who is attacked at a fundraiser and accused by Ben Solomon of being Otto Piatek, the Butcher of Zamosc. Ben is convinced that Elliot is hiding more than he lets on, that he is in fact.
Enter Catherine Lockhart, an astute lawyer with a crippled background of her own. Ben convinces Catherine to take his case pro-bono, costing her her job and status because they are going head to head with the big political name that is Elliot Rosenzweig. As Ben recounts his story to Catherine; a story with more heartache you would ever deem possible, as Ben and Otto – brothers, at first, but when Hitler’s influence starts eroding a peaceful but uneasy Germany, Ben and Otto are forced to take their places in a new world. Otto is German. The Solomon family are forced into the ghetto, all the while watching Otto gain more and more power among the ranks of the German army, his roots a fast and fleeting blink behind him. There are never happy endings in books like this.
Always a tricky one to review and judge, because it was a good story; Balson, who is a practicing attorney, puts up a good fight with a tragic history and a family broken, there is malice, mystery and a heavy load of blood that drips from this plot line; but does he pull it off. Barely.
Balson’s lack of strong dialogue, and irritating love story narrative between Liam, an old high school friend of Catherine's and PI, and Catherine. I couldn't help comparing it to the devastating tale of Ben and his wife, Hannah, which in my opinion, felt more sincere; it was the true moments of the historical retelling by Ben that redeemed him, but slowly.
It reads clumsily, and you dart to the end like it is a race, but I found no merit in it. Balson has no choice but to give the reader what they knew in the beginning. Perhaps it was supposed to be a giant twist, but for me it wasn't. It didn’t have me walking away in awe and new meaning. I merely finished the book with what I already knew when I opened it.
Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson features on this month’s Exclusive Books Recommends for March.