Saturday, 4 April 2015

Book Review: THE DEATH'S HEAD CHESS CLUB BY JOHN DONOGHUE


My Thoughts on this brilliantly moving debut novel ......

THE DEATH'S HEAD CHESS CLUB
BY
JOHN DONOGHUE


Published:  5 March 2015
Publisher:  Atlantic Books
Pages:  304


S.S. Obersturmfuhrer Paul Meissner arrives in Auschwitz fresh from fighting on the Russian Front.  After being badly wounded, he is fit only for administrative duty and his first and most pressing task is to improve flagging camp morale among the officers and the enlisted men.  
He sets up a chess club, which thrives as under-the-table bets are made on the results of the games.  
When Meissner learns from a chance remark that chess is also played by the prisoners, however, he becomes intrigued by the rumour of a Jewish watchmaker who is 'unbeatable'.
A deeply moving novel about an impossible friendship between a Nazi and a Jew, The Death's Head Chess Club challenges us to consider what might be the very limits of forgiveness and what might be the cost of a lifetime of bitterness.


I have to confess that if I saw this book on the shelf at my local bookshop I would walk straight past it.  The name and the picture would not appeal to me at all.  And when I was asked to review this book for RealReaders I was not sure if I would like it or not.

But if you're like me I would urge you to pick it up, look at the blurb and take a chance at reading something amazing, you won't be disappointed.

This is the story, mainly, of three men, the 'watchmaker' and Jew Emil Clement, former SS officer and now priest Paul Meissner and Willi Schweninger who worked in the Propaganda Ministry during WWII.

Going back and forth in time between 1943/44 and 1962, the three men are at a Chess Tournament in Amsterdam when their paths cross.  Was it fate that they should meet or divine intervention?

As they share drinks and meals together, over time, they start to tell their stories, and we realise how they are all linked.  Their stories started slowly, but gradually we learn what happened at Auschwitz as Emil was the 'unbeatable' chess player who's games became, literally, a matter of life or death and I couldn't put it down.

This is a story of hatred, unlikely friendship, unspeakable cruelty, forgiveness, healing, redemption, guilt and, of course, chess.

Overall, a moving and thought-provoking debut novel that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend.

*Just as an aside to this story, several years ago I went to Birkenau and Auschwitz.  I saw the train tracks, the watchtower and the wooden huts at Birkenau.  I visited the museum at Auschwitz, the sign that read 'Arbeit macht frei' (work makes you free) looked at the photos of the prisoners, their suitcases with their names on - all unaware of the horror awaiting them.  It was a humbling experience, very similar to the feeling I had after finishing this book.*






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