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Devastation Road by Jason Hewitt

Published in Great Britain in 2015; published by Little, Brown and Company on July 3, 2017

The device that drives Devastation Road — a man wakes up in unfamiliar surroundings, having little memory of his past — has been used by many authors. The memory loss is meant to create suspense while leading to a surprising revelation when the protagonist’s memory returns. Jason Hewitt achieves the intended effect in a carefully controlled, moving novel that surprises again and again.

Owen wakes up on a riverbank, not sure how he got there or why he has a gun in his pocket. He has a vague memory of being on a trolleybus; he knows he is from England. He sees dead bodies in the river. He eventually meets a boy named Janek who speaks a Slavic language Owen doesn’t understand. Owen is able to piece together enough information to realize that he’s in a country he has no recollection of visiting, and that the year is 1945, about four years after the last year he remembers.

Finding a map on a dead soldier, Owen recognizes none of the place names, but feels drawn to the word Sagan. For lack of a plan, that becomes his destination, the boy his willing companion, although it soon becomes clear that Janek has an agenda of his own.

Fragments of memory return as Owen makes the journey with Janek. They are eventually joined by a Polish-speaking woman named Irena and her baby, apparent victims of war’s devastation. But Irena, like Janek, also has an agenda, and Owen finds her to be even more baffling than the boy.

As is customary in memory loss novels, Hewitt plants questions for the reader to ponder. What is the significance of the button in Owen’s pocket and the patch inside his jacket? Where is Owen’s brother Max and why does Owen feel that he somehow left Max behind? What was Owen’s relationship with Max’s fiancé? Owen’s background is mysterious due to his memory loss, but other central characters are also a mystery. Why is Janek searching for his Czech brother in Germany? Why is Irena so ambivalent about the baby she calls “it”? Unanswered questions drive the plot while sustaining the reader’s interest.

The questions are eventually answered in ways that are credible and unexpected. The plot is strong — it scatters enough dramatic moments to fill a trilogy — but the novel’s greater strength lies in its characterizations, its demonstration that it is impossible to truly understand other people, particularly when their behavior is a complex response to desperate circumstances, and that it might be just as difficult to understand ourselves. The powerful story and multidimensional characters make it easy to forgive the memory loss contrivance.


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