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The Boat Runner by Devin Murphy

PRAISE:

“An ambitious coming of age story…Murphy’s debut novel is a purposely limited view of war, as was The Red Badge of Courage, but strong characters and compelling narrative convey the impact well beyond one family. An impressive debut.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))

“A stellar account of wartime sacrifice, loss, and suspense…Jacob’s final salvation is satisfying and inspiring. As one character says, ‘It’s the incidents we can’t control that make us who we are.’” (Publishers Weekly)

“Murphy’s novel is successful not only for its visceral depiction of Europe at war but also as a study in character, limning Jacob’s growth to a self-sufficient, empathetic adult.” (Booklist)

“Debut novelist Murphy lends authenticity to his story by drawing on the life of his Dutch maternal grandfather and his own experiences at sea, where Jacob crucially spends time…An effectively detailed, morally complex book that will appeal to all readers of historical fiction.” (Library Journal)

“Murphy is a rare writer whose prose rings with authority and beauty as it weaves the devastating story of children coming of age in the darkest hours of the twentieth century. Every page is alive with discovery, surprise, and ultimately, the mystery of what drives the human heart. The electricity which sets this story on its journey continues to crackle and spark long after the lights begin to go out across Europe, one after another, until we finally understand the cost and meaning of resistance, our only weapon against the tyranny that threatens to destroy civilization. This is an unforgettable tale of human triumph.” (Jonis Agee, author of The Bones of Paradise)

“Devin Murphy’s The Boat Runner is staggering. An epic and unknown story of World War II, it lays bare the moral impossibilities families face when bombs begin to fall. Masterful prose pairs with an uncommon sense for emotional complexity-here, Murphy renders both exploding warships and the deepest quandaries of the human heart with equal grace, with equal force. In The Boat Runner, Devin Murphy has given us a much-needed tale of redemption in dark times. Its truths will be with me for a long while.” (Nicholas Mainieri, author of The Infinite)

“Devin Murphy’s fantastic debut novel The Boat Runner is a lot of things—thrilling, tragic, well-paced—but maybe most of all, timely. With prose reminiscent of Per Petterson, The Boat Runner is a book that asks its reader, When does a person stand up? When does a normal person take action? And how does a person resist against overwhelming power? The Boat Runner is a satisfying page-turner, sure, but it is also an allegory for our time, a reminder of world war not so long ago, when fishermen, factory owners, children, and mothers became reluctant heroes, standing bravely against a sudden and twisted evil.” (Nickolas Butler, internationally best-selling author of SHOTGUN LOVESONGS and THE HEARTS OF MEN)

“Poignant…acts as a cautionary tale for our own times….The young Dutch boy Jacob Koopman, together with his family, lives in the middle of a morality tale, in which doing the right thing is often obscured by the need to survive. Devin Murphy has given us a moving, powerful and important work.” (Joseph Kertes, author of The Afterlife of Stars and Gratitude, winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction)

Review

April 9th 1940, the Nazis invaded Denmark and Norway.
In the first person narrative, Jacob Koopman, of Delfzijl, Holland, mentions ,”The world had gone dark and I sensed then that the world and I moved in different directions—separated by complicated crosscurrents, soon to be strangers,” you feel this despair and the journey ultimately that will turn around to someone you hope better.
The sum of all fears, home, business and families lost to war and then what revenge and then what remorse or maybe aiding humanitarian giving back making sure others reach safety.

Called to the fatherland, but what about the homeland, and his father, an industrialist, a businessman and storyteller.
Will he find a home, a fluid home, he once felt comfortable in a submarine, in retaliation, he mentions in this work, “In the mini-submarine at night, skirting along the black edge of the world, the thinnest cloud covering created a perfect inky darkness that rolled in and away with the waves. I forgot about my old life. Being in the submarine, it was as if I had no past. My life simply started as a sailor, and that sufficed,” but then….
In time of vulnerability and naivety he could not see the bigger picture of the fatherland, in his pain, his loss.
A search of identity and purpose ensues, I think to the writer James Joyce and the portrait of the artist as a young man and this could be named the portrait, the becoming, of a boat runner/humanitarian in a young man.
He starts to think again and mentions, ”I felt the sudden sense of the world shifting, of morals and laws and civilized human behavior kicked loose.”
He will understandably be driven to a want to the world before the war, with his family, his dreams and ambitions torn apart but then he finds the sea his grace in ways.

Engrossing and poetic prose, heart felt, vivid sense of world gone-by, as lives stripped apart, lives lost, and the main protagonist and family fates at hand a hook in narrative.
A very human story, a heart at conflict with itself, a portrait of a man caught up in the that terrible war and atrocities of 1940’s, from boy with dreams and aspirations, to the man, to solider for Germany, but then we he see the war for what it is and then the running, running from the pain and suffering, and those lost at the other end of the gun and gas.
A read to hit best of and must reads of 2017.

EXCERPTS:

I picked up the welding rod and imagined the blue flame liquefying steel and binding it together in more fascinating ways. An art form. I thought we were all supposed to have some kind of art form. My father had his lights, my mother her music, and Edwin, who beamed with talent and potential, took wide slabs of butcher paper and mimicked every shape in the world, as if practicing for some larger swath of canvas, maybe even a cathedral ceiling, that would surely come later. In the dark I imagined turning the blue tongue of fire on my own chest to crack it open, to pull out my own hidden talent, my own art form, whatever it was.

That was the first time I really thought of how in the middle of the sea there is no break, no leaving. Prior to this, boats always meant the roar of props pushing water. All the science and industry behind each rivet that composed a vessel felt like a poem to people in motion, to wild souls pushing offshore.

These soldiers were not that much older than me, and it was clear to me then that the whole camp system must have been one of the most cunning military maneuvers in history. The camps took every boy in a nation, filled them with a passion for their country, the ideas of what their unified country stood for, and under the guise of games, taught them how to become an army. An army that believed wholeheartedly in the Fatherland—an army that worked its way across the channel and encamped on Dutch soil.

I looked up to the sky expecting more of the bombers. I wished I had been there when the bombs fell, to have opened my mouth and swallowed their ordinance. Then spit it all back at them. I hated them for their ability to fly, for what they had done. I wanted to match my uncle’s rage with my own, but who was there left to hate? The only choice was to hate everyone. Martin undid his jacket and covered my mother with it. Then he scooped her body off the ground.
Hilda with her fading bruises and half-inch-long hair. Ludo with his half-limp arm. Ludo’s mother with her nine lost pregnancies. The men and women whom I’d worked with and my father had employed for almost two decades. Their lives. Their stories. I didn’t want to look and find them. I didn’t want to find scraps of their bodies, the certainty of their death. If I didn’t look, there was a chance they had survived.

I’m not sure if I was thinking clearly in that moment, but there were certain facts, truths I was holding on to. The Dutch had drowned my brother and the Allies had killed my mother, and on the Allies’ behalf my father had sabotaged his safety and was forced into hiding.

I looked around us, and felt something inside me shift. I pictured the notes they pinned to the board in Southampton. I knew the ultimate Nazi goal of having one race and one grand narrative. Their effort to bind the continent together had failed by the mere presence of these people on board. Boats departed from every corner of Europe, and on each, there burrowed little tics of survival stories embedded in each of the passengers. These living refugees gave me hope. The continent itself was still populated with great storytellers, perhaps even some crawling through every contested border and shifting in currents beneath the very ground that was invaded. There was no mono-story, only the great, broken narrative of raw, throbbing life.

 



Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 09 September 2017