World War II is the subject of many current historical novels, mostly focused on events in Europe, but This Great Wilderness concerns itself with an often-overlooked postscript: the flight of many prominent Nazis to Argentina.
In 1951, Raymond Varela and his young son Anton – a frail child: asthmatic, but bright, observant and articulate – embark on a journey into Patagonia, a long-deferred dream of Raymond’s. He is pursuing butterflies, his life’s avocation.
Raymond is escaping post-war Britain and his own memories of his war losses: his wife Antonia, killed in a bombing raid when their son was only a few weeks old. He fears he may have left this trip too late, the events of his life perhaps having snuffed out the passion he once felt for the country and its wildlife. But he is determined to give Anton, and himself, this experience.
Leni is the prisoner of a German officer who fled to Argentina. British by birth, she was in Europe taking care of an elderly aunt when she was abducted, raped, and kept captive for his pleasure by a Nazi officer. He brings her with him to Argentina, where she is abused, raped by guards and other officers, and locked away unless she is brought out to charm guests. She finally escapes, to be reluctantly rescued by Raymond, who takes her into the wilderness.
While there is some tension around her possible pursuit, most of the conflict in This Great Wilderness is concerned with Leni’s justifiable fear of Raymond, his dislike of her, and the gradual reveal of the unspeakable abuse she has suffered. Anton is the first to break through Leni’s barriers, seeing in her a reflection of his own loneliness and need for love. Raymond has his own secrets and self-recriminations, and as they both begin to see each other as damaged and vulnerable, the bond between them strengthens.
This Great Wilderness is neither a conventional historical novel nor a conventional love story. Today, both Leni and Raymond would be diagnosed as autistic (confirmed by the author, herself autistic), which gives the characters and the way they see the world and other people a unique flavour. It delves deep, without being graphic, into the abuse Leni has survived and is realistic about its effects. But this is more a psychological and character study set against a specific historical period than a historical novel. The Nazi officers and guards serve the role of cruelty and evil, but they could equally well have been religious cult leaders or any other group who saw fit to treat a woman in this way. The history of the Nazis who took refuge in Argentina and their desire to create a Fourth Reich is significant in the first part of the book, but is not resolved, although Leni is privy to at least some of their plans.
As a character study of a woman fighting to recover from a decade of abuse, This Great Wilderness kept my attention – but it is a book in which history is a setting and plot device, not a meaningful part of the story.
Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Marian L Thorpe