- - Friday, August 26, 2011

By Charles Todd
Morrow, $24.99, 352 pages

By Helen Dunmore
Grove / Black Cat, $14.95 336 pages

Perhaps the saddest truth of war is that it corrodes all it touches. In “Bitter Truth,” Charles Todd’s theme is war, and as is the case in his earlier novels, plot is sublimated to historic events, in this case those of World War I. The story begins with the discovery of a young woman with a bruised face cowering in a London doorway in the rain. She is found by Bess Crawford, a nurse home on leave for Christmas from her work with the wounded in France. Bess, as strong-minded as she is indefatigable, takes after her tough-minded father, known as “Colonel Sahib” during his military career, and she promptly assumes control and command of Lydia, the tearful waif she finds on her doorstep.

Discovering Lydia is the first step on the road to disaster for Bess, who proceeds to return the young woman to where she lives. That is Vixen Hall, one of England’s stately homes. When the pair arrives, Bess discovers a profoundly sad family. Lydia’s parents reside there and they are in mourning for their elder son, who died of war wounds. More alarming is the discovery that it is Lydia’s husband who punched her in the face and sent her fleeing into the night.

Mr. Todd’s characterization is always sensitive, and he delineates the kind of family that belonged to the waning days of empire. Grandmother Ellis, the matriarch of the group, is almost a caricature of herself in her arrogance, and Lydia is no match for any of them - especially since Vixen Hall seems doom-ridden, with the family paying respects to a marble statue of the dead brother, and Roger Ellis concealing a scandalous secret beyond his bad temper and his memories.

Of course there is a murder or two and that is where Bess steps in, which wins her no popularity contest with the Ellis brood. Mr. Todd wisely shifts his scene to the war in France, a lost child and an ebullient Australian sergeant who gets attention by singing the kookaburra song.

The sergeant is by far the most colorful character in the book, partly because he doesn’t take himself too seriously, and there is a hint that Bess might take him more seriously if given the opportunity, especially given the pomposity that surrounds her. Of course, she saves the child and finds the killer, whose identity isn’t too difficult to guess, and as her father says, Bess isn’t afraid of anything. Nor should she be. The reader can look forward to finding her again.

Looking back more than half a century, it is difficult to comprehend the savagery and cruelty of life in Stalin’s Russia. Helen Dunmore drums home the ferocity of the Soviet dictator who at least matched Hitler for sadism in “The Betrayal.” There is and can be no explanation for Stalin’s determination to wreak misery on those defenseless against the thugs who did his bidding. Not even those who became his victims understood why.

Like Andrei, the young doctor who pays a hideous price for trying and failing to save the life of a child dying of cancer. The child is the son of a Soviet official who sees the doctor’s failure as part of a “medical sabotage” plot. The doctor, a reasonable and caring man, chooses to ignore the warnings of friends that he must not risk the wrath of a father seeking vengeance for the death of his child.

The doctor is wrenched from his pregnant wife, Anna, in the middle of the night and watches as the police wreck the apartment to the point of destroying jars of home made jam. He is flung into jail, beaten and tortured. He barely survives.

There is no justice in Stalin’s Russia. All that Andrei can expect is imprisonment or death, whether he signs fake confessions or not. His wife seeks refuge in the countryside with her teenage brother who discovers that at 16 he is far older than he ever dreamed he would be. Maturity is the price of bare survival for a young boy who is growing up in hell.

Yet Anna takes comfort from her newborn child, and lives as far away as possible from the kind of politics that could be practiced only by a monster. Ms. Dunmore eloquently conveys the huge relief that envelops Russians when Stalin dies, because with his death there is born a small radiance of hope for those who managed to survive him. And within that ray of hope there is the possibility that now the doctor can come home. This is a book that should be read and valued as a reminder of a terrible chapter in history.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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