Multi-layered thriller unlocks the harrowing secrets of a Catholic asylum
The man at the heart of Felix Weber’s rich and deftly constructed historical thriller is Siem Coburg, a former Resistance fighter wrongfully accused of collaborating with the Germans in occupied Holland during World War Two. He was guilty by association, having survived the war alongside traitor Willem Ashoff, who posed as a member of the same Resistance network while using his connections to deal in contraband.
Ashoff ruthlessly conned Siem’s lover Rosa into risking her life on what she thought was a vital operation when in fact she was smuggling watches and tobacco. In the aftermath of a mission sabotaged by Ashoff, Rosa was taken prisoner and killed by firing squad.
Embittered, Siem has turned his back on the world, but his sister Maria rouses him from his self-imposed exile. She has been approached by Tammens, a farmer who helped save Siem’s life shortly before the war ended. On the run after killing a couple of Nazi sympathisers who were planning to inform on him, Siem found refuge on Tammens’ farm and only narrowly avoided discovery: at the last minute, his pursuers were driven away by the bloodcurdling screams of the farmer’s mentally disabled grandson Siebold.
After the war, Tammens was forced to place Siebold in the care of the monks of St Norbert’s, a Catholic home for mentally disabled children. Aged only 17, the boy died within its walls, a violent death judging by the welts and other wounds covering his body. Tammens asks Siem to find those responsible.
Siem rents a room in the village close to St Norbert’s and begins his surveillance of life in and around the institution. Posing as a journalist he is given a tour of the grounds and the buildings. The suspicions aroused during this visit are confirmed when he sneaks into the complex and witnesses a violent outburst by one of the monks.
Weber weaves a second plotline through his narrative, focusing on Brother Felix who is a virtual outsider within the order at St Norbert’s. Having endured the horrors of the trenches during the First World War, where he served as a medic, he has a keen eye for suffering. But traumatised by his wartime ordeal he lacks the resolve to intervene in the cycle of abuse he sees around him.
Siem Coburg’s recollections of life in the Resistance, the diaries of Brother Felix and the revelations surrounding the abuses in the institution come together to form an intriguing and multi-layered narrative set against the insular life of the village dominated by St Norbert’s, where silence and intimidation go hand in hand. Human frailty is evocatively expressed in Felix Weber’s tense and richly imagined thriller.