Night Falls on the City: The Lost Masterpiece of Wartime Vienna, by Sarah Gainham

Review published on January 19, 2013.Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt

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[product sku=”9780349000336″]On its publication in 1967, Night Falls on the City became a New York Times bestseller. Despite it being heralded ‘a sensation’, Gainham’s books – and there are rather a lot of them – have sadly fallen somewhat out of popularity. It has recently been reprinted by Abacus, and is championed by such popular contemporary authors as Helen Dunmore and Kate Mosse.

Night Falls on the City is epic in its scale, and spans the entirety of the Second World War. In her introduction, Mosse describes the novel as ‘one of those rare novels of beauty and scope and ambition that both brings to life a particular moment in history, a particular society, while at the same time rejoicing in the minute details of everyday life, everyday emotions’. She believes that with its reprinting, the novel ‘is now being restored to its rightful place on the bookshelf beside other classics of Second World War literature’.

The novel tells the story of an actress named Julia Homburg, a member of the left-wing elite in Vienna, Austria, and begins in 1938. At this point, Vienna is ‘an ancient city on the brink of Occupation’, and clouds of darkness are beginning to settle themselves over the city’s rather liberal façade. With the looming threat of the enforcement of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws, Julia’s husband, Franz Wedeker, is in danger.

We are introduced to Julia at once, and are launched immediately into her story. In the first scene in which she is present, she and a fellow actor, Hans, are discussing what lies ahead for their beloved city, and what this will hold for Franz. Julia – ‘the rangy girl with loose dark hair, aggressive and uncertain, had grown into beauty and power’ – is vivid at once, as is Franz when he finds his way into the story, but some of the secondary characters seem rather lifeless. Gainham’s descriptions of those who people her novel are wonderful despite this, due to the way in which she writes of them in sharply perceptive and original ways. A man standing on one of the city’s streets is ‘cramped with want’, a woman has a ‘fist like a lump of mutton fat’, and another is filled with ‘a lifetime of small envies [which] glinted in her sideways look’. It is clear throughout that Gainham’s entire focus is placed upon Julia and Franz. Even when they are not present in a scene, her care and consideration for them still places them at the forefront of the novel.

Deceptions run through the novel from the start, and range from Julia and her housekeeper’s hiding of Franz in a small village outside the city, to the words of blackmail which she is forced to utter when others threaten to expose his new residence.

Throughout, Vienna has been presented as a character of the utmost importance. Gainham wonderfully captures her ‘tempered grey stone, the steely sky and shadowed, blue-white snow… the sentimental chestnuts and lilacs, the comically maddening people of the streets… Every evening to be seduced afresh’. From the outset, every slice of scenery, every object, is treated with such care. Night Falls on the City is filled with a multitude of tiny details which join and converge to create a realistic picture of life in Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The historical background to the novel is its overriding strength, and has been presented in rather a masterful way. A few of these can be a little confusing at times, and sentences often have to be read more than once for all of the details to be absorbed.

Night Falls on the City is a novel about human bravery, the kindnesses of others, the unrelenting belief in good above all else, and the way in which certain situations make characters change incredibly drastically. It is sad in places and powerful in others, and the pace throughout matches the story wonderfully. Night Falls on the City is certainly a volume which deserves to be reprinted, and one which should gain Sarah Gainham much deserved recognition in the modern world.


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