Across generations, Sophie Mance
Levi’s War is a poignant, meticulously researched novel by Julie Thomas. Although part of the Horowitz Chronicles, it can be read as a stand-alone book, provided the reader is prepared to keep track of a tangled web of characters spanning three generations.
The book opens in London in 2017, in a backroom of the national archives, where, alongside high ranking military officials responsible for curating a memorial exhibit, we’re introduced to Levi Horowitz – more specifically, to a recording of Levi from 1945. On screen, he introduces himself: “my real name is Levi Horowitz and this is the story of my war. I shall recount it once, here, and then I don’t want speak about it ever again.” And so begins the story of Levi’s war.
In delicate, if a little simplistic prose, the story jumps between Levi’s narrative and the present, when his descendants are tracked down and shown his testimony. Levi’s story starts in Berlin and, through his eyes, the reader is transported across war-torn Europe from an Isle of Man internment camp to the Italian resistance.
Initially, the pacing of the novel seems slow and Levi seems implausibly naïve. However, Thomas’s writing quickly gains momentum, building an intriguing complex character with a deep sense of justice. As a concert pianist and polyglot, Levi is recruited to Churchill’s Special Operations Executive (SOE); an undercover organisation created for underground warfare and sabotage, and ordered to “set Europe ablaze.” The opportunity appealed to Levi’s strong moral compass: “he wanted to be able to say that when he was given the chance to change the course of history, he took it.”
Sound familiar? Seven chapters in and the plot sounds formulaic: German Jew seeks revenge against the horrific Nazi regime, add in some action scenes and a love triangle. However, Levi’s War is more complex: there is a love interest, but they’re not female. Levi is gay and, to his family watching his testimony 72 years later, that comes as something of a shock. Intertwined with Levi’s own love story is the coming out story of his great-nephew, as the family debate how much of Levi’s testimony to make public. This development does reveal a plot hole, or perhaps just artistic license, as Levi escaped persecution for homosexuality at a time when it was a crime, unlike historical figures like Alan Turing.
Most holocaust books choose to focus on the more well-known German or French resistance; instead, Levi joins the Italian resistance. He encounters numerous influential figures based in Assisi who help hide Jews and help the Allies during the Nazi retreat from Italy. Based on real historical figures (including Father Don Aldo Brunacci, Colonel Valentin Müller and Bishop Giuseppe Placido Nicolini), Levi’s War shares the stories of just a few unsung heroes. I look forward to reading the rest of the Horowitz chronicles to discover more unheard stories of the resistance. Moreover, I’m intrigued to find out more about the connections between and back stories of the Horowitz descendants; I felt these were barely explained in the book and required a bit of effort from the reader in order to connect the dots between the past and present Horowitz generations.
Unfortunately, Thomas did not manage to escape all the clichés expected of an intergenerational family story. As a result, the final scene, a memorial for Levi and his brother Simon, predictably includes a pregnant granddaughter-in-law and a toast to “the Horowitz family, all the heroes we remember.” Nevertheless, the final scene is touching and would be more so, I imagine, if the reader had read the entire trilogy.
Levi’s War is no Edward Rutherford, ten-generation, one-thousand-page tome, but it does offer the same sort of heartwarming, historically accurate family history in a far more practical size.
Sophie Mance is 17 and attends Wellington High School.