The Death of the Fronsac (2017)
By: Neal Ascherson
Published by: Head of Zeus
The first novel by the author and journalist Neal Ascherson, published when he was 84.
Its publishers describe it as follows:
“This is an unforgettable recreation of life in wartime, and of the tragic fate of Poland in the twentieth century: a novel about sabotage, betrayal and the terrible sadness of exile.
In 1940, during the Phoney War, a French destroyer blows up in the Firth of Clyde. The disaster is witnessed by Jackie, a young girl who, for a time, thinks she caused the explosion by running away that day from school; by her mother Helen, a spirited woman married to a dreary young officer; and by a Polish officer, whose country has just been erased from the map by Hitler and Stalin. Their lives, and the lives of many others, are changed by the death of the Fronsac.
This is a story about divided loyalties, treachery and exile; about people in flight from the destinies that seemed to be theirs before the war disrupted the world they knew.
Ascherson was interviewed about the novel in The Guardian, July 2017.
Zielony Balonik book club notes:
We met for lunch with Neal Ascherson, who was in Edinburgh to read at the Book Festival. Thanks to Magda Montgomery for these notes on our discussion.
The meeting round that big table was such a light-hearted occasion, on a sunny day, with Festival crowds milling outside, that we didn’t really tackle the serious and currently relevant themes of the book, which someone called a ‘state of the nation novel’. I’m not sure I would go that far, but on the negative side there was racism in it, and violence, ignorance, and anti-semitism. Indeed, I read the book for the first time around the time when there were reports of a court case involving a young man from a small town in Scotland who taught his dog to perform a nazi salute at the command ‘gas the Jews’. Apparently, he was fined £800 or thereabouts – quite shocking. The character of sinister, brutal Melville Johnston, his elevation, downfall, and hasty departure to a land where questions are not asked is somehow recognisable. But there was also goodness, kindness, ordinary human decency, qualities which Polish soldiers who were stationed in Scotland (like my father Kazimierz) remembered well.
As to Neal’s knowledge and understanding of things Polish, I’m simply amazed. How is it possible, for a Scot, and why would a Scot consider it worthwhile? It’s simply wonderful! I think I’ll read the novel again, and savour it.