The Partisan Heart by Gordon Kerr

Media of The Partisan Heart

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

It is affirming to open the mail and find a book by a novelist who really knows how to create a piece of art out of his writing. I had never read any of Kerr’s work until now when I had the pleasure of reading The Partisan Heart. A reader’s decision to buy a book often begins with the front cover. Kerr’s book highlights “Love and War, Crime and Betrayal” as the themes of the novel. They are reinforced by a red and black cover that contains a silhouetted figure of a man in a flowing coat. The back cover contains sufficient information to whet the reader’s interest. It does not cram the page but allows some sketchy details of the author’s life and previous publications.

The cover is attractive, but does the author deliver? He does. Books that jump from one decade back to another only to reverse the process are usually a curse. More often than not they are poorly constructed with the constant switching confusing both the writer and the reader. This book switches from 1999 to 1943 – 44 and back to 1999 but does not confuse me, my train of thought easily altering as the author leads. I believe this happens because the author quite obviously planned so carefully.

The book is like a chess piece slowly being assembled by a master hand. The bits and pieces – the scenes, characters, actions – make their way into the story from obscurity to that degree of exposure that fits their relative importance. Then they disappear abruptly or fade away as is required of them. Angela plays a key role in the story. It is 1943. She floats in, the wife of a man who had raped her, collides with another character on a mountain pathway (54), and after several encounters, has sex with him. Before long, she floats away from the story when we hear of her consignment to a German extermination facility. Yet her effect on the story is vast. {One part of the plot that leaves me uncomfortable is a liaison in November. That is not the time, and the mountains are not the place for hanky-panky on a mountain path}.

The lead character Michael Keats is mourning the death of his wife Rosa in a car accident in the Italian mountains in 1999. That seems straightforward enough, except it isn’t. Apart from the fact that she has been having a love affair with a man who wears a large-sized coat (36), her death and its subsequent investigation, opens up the story and remains pivotal throughout. As the tale progresses Michael has a sexual encounter (283) with a new woman in his life but it is so fleeting and bland that it might never have happened. Its telling is so low-key simply because it has little effect on the flow of the story. It occurs so that readers can be satisfied that Helen has a reason for being present at most key times.

Events involving the partisans and the Axis forces in the 1940s are bloodthirsty enough to satisfy any reader who likes violence, but at the same time, the number of violent incidents is carefully controlled. The depiction of the villagers who frequent the pubs in the Italian mountains makes them so easily recognisable that they would be out of place in any other setting. The German Obersturmfuhrer who executed partisans in the mountains was the least convincing of the characters; he became even less so when he argued he was not really a Nazi but simply joined the Party because his mates were doing so.

The story unfolds at a leisurely pace or bursts into action when the respective times are appropriate. I think Gordon Kerr’s strength lies in the wider aspects of planning and writing. His characters Michael and Helen trail a man in a vehicle until he turns into a narrow track. They do what they’ve got to do and then begin driving down a steep, winding road. Their person of interest drives a high powered vehicle. Suddenly, Michael realises that their headlights are visible to the driver who is following. How will he solve that problem? The follower is going to catch up with them. The solution: he parks and tells Helen to kiss him. He has realised that he and Helen are in the local Lovers’ Lane. It works without a hitch…well, maybe.

A couple of blemishes are not sufficient to detract substantially from a very interesting and agreeable book.

The Partisan Heart


by Gordon Kerr

Muswell Press (Bloomsbury)

ISBN: 978-1-9996-1359-4

$29.99; 336pp

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