Written by Ben Pastor — Lumen was first released in Italy back in 1999, and Ben Pastor is the nom de plume of the university academic better known to her students as Maria Verbena Volpi. This is the first novel in her Martin Bora series, which is set during World War II and features a most unusual pairing – the German captain Bora and an American Roman Catholic priest. The books have recently been picked up by British publisher Bitter Lemon Press which released the second book, Liar Moon, earlier this month.
It’s Cracow in 1939 and the Nazis are already beginning to establish themselves in Poland and making it abundantly clear that anyone who stands in their way will be shown no mercy. Graphic displays of violence are commonplace and when we’re first introduced to the protagonist Martin Bora, it’s in the aftermath of an attack on vehicles carrying Nazi personnel. The Polish army is on the march and there are plenty of casualties on either side, but the cost to civilians is also highlighted.
Mother Kazimierza is Abbess of the Our Lady of Sorrows convent and is highly respected by Poles and German alike. She bears the stigmata and is regarded as something of a mystic due to her ability to predict events through visions. Hailed as a potential saint, the Vatican have sent Father John Malecki to investigate her, but when she is murdered in the convent’s cloister garden, Bora must look into the killing and finds that he must join forces with the American priest if he is going to discover the truth. He has only two questions: who would want to kill a nun, and why? To complicate matters, he finds himself investigating a second death when his roommate unexpectedly commits suicide. The cases may or may not be linked but Bora is convinced that in both deaths, something doesn’t quite add up.
Having a German officer as your main protagonist may seem a strange choice. I have to admit I had mixed feelings towards Bora because of what he represents but to counter that he isn’t a typical Nazi. There are hints throughout about his background – he comes from a good family, is well educated, recently married and although not necessarily a good Catholic, he does have a moral code. He’s a man bound by duty and loyalty but troubled by the paths he has chosen, and fully aware that he risks making some very dangerous enemies.
This isn’t the easiest book to read, predominantly because of the subject matter Pastor chooses as one of her central themes. The harsh realities of Nazi occupation and anti-Semitism are laid bare and her writing will evoke strong feelings with many readers. However, it does very much feel as though the main purpose of the book is to allow the reader to get to know what kind of men Bora and Malecki are, especially as this is the first time their paths will cross in this intelligently written series.
Bitter Lemon Press
CFL Rating: 4 Stars