After figuring out that Reinheit by Thomas Flowers is a novel which has descriptions of German (Einzatsgruppen) wartime atrocities, it was interesting for me to know where the name came from. A translation of Reinheit is “purity.” That may have been stated in the novel somewhere but if so, I missed it. It makes a lot of sense on at least two levels after reading this fascinating tale told from the perspectives of two time periods. There is no time travel although there is a bit of fantasy involved. There may be some readers that believe the protagonist is a chair.
Of course, the protagonist is not a chair but is more of an agent. Anyone sitting in the Queen Anne chair is susceptible to a complete personality takeover by the chair. All the memories contained in the chair, memories of SS executioners implementing the “final solution” as well as the memories of those executed combine to create in the chair’s “guest” feelings of either despair and horror or feelings of power and the desire to determine the ultimate fate of others. But the chair does not have to have direct sustained contact with the potentially affected person. Neighbor Mike just wanted to help Rebecca carry the chair into the house after Rebecca carried it home but couldn’t get it into the house by herself. She noticed that Mike was quite handsome and she began to have lustful thoughts. Mike actually touched the chair while carrying it into the house. He noticed that Rebecca was unusually pretty that day, her husband wasn’t home, and he might have a chance at being personally rewarded. Rebecca came out of her semi-trance in time to slap Mike into consciousness from his near comatose state and the reader learns of the power of the chair.
There are several varieties of evil in this novel. German atrocities, descriptions of death and brutality, and the seeming regret of some of the German perpetrators is one kind of evil. Then there is the possible forbidden love element of Maj. Schroeder and Lt. Braun. Maj. Schroeder’s hidden desires intensify while sitting in the chair. Lt. Braun notices his feelings change as he gets nearer to the chair in which Schroeder is sitting. The Fuhrer would not approve. Their account is told in tandem with the relationship of Rebecca and Frank. The romantic relationship of the man and wife has changed over time. In a thoroughly horrifying tale of spousal abuse, Rebecca has had problems with accepting the increasing levels of physical abuse Frank would use to teach Rebecca needed lessons. Rebecca tries to please. She even bought Frank a new chair for his study where he could comfortably read on weekends. The horrible part is that Rebecca felt that the abuse she suffered was her fault, that she couldn’t seem to learn how to be a good wife so she wouldn’t have to receive the beatings. Frank really enjoyed administering lessons to his teacher wife.
It seems the chair affects all characters but there are not predictable effects as the reader will discover when characters tell their story. Frank reveals a despicable and extremely hateful personality. I hated him. Rebecca develops a changing attitude toward Frank but it is hard to feel sympathy for Rebecca, she is too much the willing victim. There is a crisis at Rebecca’s school which will reveal, through the characters of other teachers, problems of racism and of bowing to political expediency. There is a mysterious guy running around in a yellow Volkswagen spying on Frank, Rebecca, and anyone having anything to do with the provenance and ownership of the chair. There is Clyde, the misunderstood arsonist out for the instant gratification his hobby provides.
This is a well-written tale if you enjoy exploring the depths of evil. I wouldn’t call the ending particularly happy but there are a lot of surprises along the journey to the end. Throughout the novel, usually between chapters, there are interesting quotes that can lead to reader introspection. I am looking forward to other novels by this author.