The Alphabet House

The Alphabet House - Jussi Adler-Olsen I couldn’t describe the book any better so from the book cover:

“During World War 2, two British pilots, James and Bryan, are shot down over Germany. They know that they will be executed if taken hostage. Pursued by German dog patrols, they manage to escape by jumping on to a German hospital train transporting mentally deranged German SS-officers away from the front. James and Bryan throw a couple of patients off the train so that they can occupy their sick beds, hoping to make an escape later on. However, the train takes them to "The Alphabet House", a mental hospital far away from the front line. Their only means of survival is to simulate madness. But can they do so? Without going mad for real? And are James and Bryan the only ones faking it?”

I’ve mentioned before that I tend to stay away from books dealing with certain subjects and WWII is definitely on my personal “stay away” list. Alas, nothing is written in stone and sometimes the premise of a book just sounds too appealing and I have to break down and give it a try. Besides, Mr. Adler-Olsen assured me in the forward that this was not a book “about the war” it is a book “set in war time”. The two mean the same thing to me. Sometimes I am pleasantly rewarded for stepping out of my comfort zone (The Book Thief) and sometimes I am not. I sit on the fence with this book.

First of all I should warn any potential readers of a gentler constitution that there are a lot
(A LOT!!) of gristly (grizzly?) scenes in this book. I listened to it on audio and found myself driving to work grimacing (okay, grimacing more than I usually do on my drive to work). Of course it is a book “set in war time” so I knew that was going to be part of it. The book consists of two parts. Part one deals with “The Alphabet House”, an insane asylum for SS officers, where James and Bryan find themselves delivered by the train. When one of them escapes, by necessity and lack of options leaving the other behind, we move into the second part of the book which takes place 30 years later. With equal parts undying friendship and survivor’s guilt the soldier who escaped has never stopped looking for the friend he had to leave behind. Despite having hired professional private detectives to search for his friend no trace of him has ever been found. Just as he is ready to give up his search and admit that he probably did die when the hospital was bombed near the end of the war, a clue falls into his lap and he goes looking one more time.

Although both parts of the book are interesting I found myself wishing things would move along at a little bit of a brisker pace. Obviously, since our two protagonists were forced to assume the identity of two other men there was a name change involved. As it turns out most of the characters in this book were known by two or more name/nicknames and they were used interchangeably depending on who was doing the speaking. This got to be a little confusing and I would have enjoyed the book a bit more if in the second half the author could have stuck to using one name per character.

Although the book is not in a genre I usually enjoy I am glad I picked it up. Mr. Adler-Olsen did a fine job with a complicated subject.