Morris Gleitzman concludes his series about a young boy during the Holocaust with After.AFTERBy Morris GleitzmanPenguin, $19.95
Nanjing Night Net

THIS extraordinary novel brings to a conclusion the series in which Morris Gleitzman has taken the Holocaust as his subject and told its story through the life of a small boy, Felix. It began with Once, moved through Then, took a leap to Now and has returned to After.

This fourth book draws Felix’s story to its end by filling in the space between Then and Now. Even so, all four novels in the series can be read as individual works and not necessarily in sequence.

To say After is one of the finest children’s novels written in the past 25 years or so is no idle statement. It is narrative at its gripping best – nail-biting excitement, tears and affirmation of all that is good, noble and dignified about childhood. Out of the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust, After offers a celebration of life and survival.

The opening is assured and exquisitely paced. It is 1945 and Felix, now 13, has been in hiding for two years in a barn on the farm belonging to his friend, Gabriek. He mistakes a party of men who arrive at the farm for Nazis. Polish partisans are fighting the retreating Germans and unbeknown to Felix, Gabriek is an explosives expert and a partisan.

Gabriek is taken away. Felix pursues him and the two join up with a partisan group in a forest. Here he meets Yuli, a fearless young woman who realises that Felix needs protection not from the suspicious partisans but from his desire to stay with Gabriek.

There are many poignant moments, handled with great poise by Gleitzman. Felix’s parents have disappeared in the round-ups of Jews and he has kept a faint flicker of hope that they will have survived. Gabriek is wounded and sent away.

In counterpoint, Gleitzman does not resile from portraying the Holocaust in all its savagery. People are shot, farms are burnt and many people sent on forced marches starve to death.

Yet he never allows the candle of hope to be extinguished. As a partisan recruit, Felix helps a doctor tend the wounded. And the maternal Yuli shows him the kind of tactile affection, restrained as it is, that he has longed for from his mother.

It is a measure of Gleitzman’s awareness of his audience that he brings the context of family life into sharp relief. There is much for readers to identify with. The action of the novel is unwavering. The setting changes frequently as Felix, Yuli and the partisans attack or escape the Nazis, search for food and encounter Hitler Youth fanatics and hiding Jewish children.

But nothing can prepare readers for one of the most moving and unexpected conclusions. That we do not see it coming makes it all the more powerful.

There are no weaknesses in this brilliantly imagined and unforgettable story. At its heart, After is about love and we are edified by reading it.

■Morris Gleitzman is conducting a workshop in writing for children and young adults at the Melbourne Writers Festival. mwf南京夜网.au

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