“This book is not a war novel” – this is the opening statement of the author’s notes in the paperback edition of Alphabet House. The story is one of two childhood friends who get stranded in enemy territory during WW2, and, in their attempts to escape, find themselves in a psychiatric hospital for Nazi officers. It is perhaps not the most conventional of war novels, and the emotional scenes tend to pack more of a punch than the action sequences, but its identity is difficult to separate from war, particularly in the first half of the story. It is, however, nothing short of a pleasure to read.
In the hospital, Bryan and James, two English-speaking soldiers who studied at Cambridge together, face threats from all sides. They must play the part of high-ranking Nazi officers, attempting to hide their true identities from the staff of the hospital and – much more crucially – from the other patients, who are seldom the mentally ill victims that they first appear to be. There are moments of sweet humour, but it is a far harsher reality than the tirade of satire found in depictions of war hospitals such as that in Catch-22. Adler-Olsen’s story is gritty, never shying away from the most grotesque truths of survival under such conditions, and the bleak outlook of the first half of the novel has much more in common with the stripped back brutality of the training facility in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket than with anything that resembles noir.
The plot and the tone, however, undertake a sharp twist in the middle of the novel. A breath-catching account of survival suddenly becomes a detective story fuelled by paranoia and misunderstandings, and a profound tale of loss, regret and friendship, as the demons of the past permeate life outside the hospital. It is a difficult transition to pull off, but Adler-Olsen does so with apparent effortlessness, channelling the same extreme emotions of the first half of the novel into a very different world. This makes for a second half that starts slowly but accelerates at a rapid pace until it finally catches up with the emotional heights of the first, and everything is drawn as if magnetised towards an emotional and satisfyingly unsatisfying ending that very much befits the emotional pummelling that it concludes.
The translation by Steve Schein does not always give the impression of elucidating all of the intricacy of the original text. It is, of course, difficult to assess the balance between the two renderings, but there are times when jerky transitions or anomalous language can seem out of place. However, this is not to say that it is any way a difficult read, and in a plot in which small misunderstandings are so crucial, it is perhaps not as out of place as it might be in other novels.
Alphabet House is a fascinating exploration of the effects of pretending to be someone else, and it shows a great sympathy of treatment from an author who, though well established in the medium of writing, has little experience in the world of novels. It may at times be a story of intense melancholy, but it is a story populated by acutely empathetic characters whose story would improve the life of any reader.