In The Second Midnight, Andrew Taylor unpicks the connections between a group of people – a dysfunctional family, spies, ordinary people – before, during and after World War Two in England and Czechoslovakia. Essentially it is a novel of relationships wrapped up in the parcel of wartime spying, lies and romance. In its scope it reminds me of Robert Goddard’s Wide World trilogy, except Taylor covers the subject in one book rather than three.
It is 1939 and twelve year old Hugh Kendall is bullied by his father, sighed over by his harried mother, ignored by his older brother and manipulated by his older sister. Hugh retreats into imaginative games with his toy soldiers. His father, failing glass importer Alfred Kendall, is recruited by the Secret Services as a courier on a glass-buying trip to Czechoslovakia. In tow is Hugh, recently expelled from school, a nuisance to his father. Alfred is not a natural spy, though he thinks he is. When things get sticky and Alfred must return to England, the Czech Resistance keeps Hugh as collateral to ensure his father’s quick return. But Hugh finds himself alone in Prague after the German invasion, unsure who to trust, unsure if he will be rescued. He quickly learns to live on his wits. This for me was the best section of the book.
The thing that makes this story stand apart for me is Hugh. He makes an uncanny narrator, giving us a view of life in an occupied country, stranded from everything that is safe and familiar. Adept at languages, Hugh quickly becomes familiar with Czech and German allowing him to assume a false identity as Rudi Messner, a Czech-Hungarian boy. Cared for by a German officer, Colonel Helmut Scholl, Hugh works as the gardener’s boy at Scholl’s mansion in Prague and meets the colonel’s children, Heinz and Magda. These relationships weave across the years and the pages into the post-war years and the fight against communism.
The significance of the title left me wondering if I had missed something. It is set up with an intriguing connection between two characters, then abandoned. The connection with the Prologue was also lost on me as it is only mentioned again at the end and I had forgotten what happened; ends neatly tied without adding understanding. Taylor knows how to tell a page turning story, I read this quickly. This is a fascinating read over a complex time period, but an enormous subject; I wish it had been given the space of three books to explore fully.
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THE SECOND MIDNIGHT by @AndrewJRTaylor #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-4gC via @SandraDanby