A review of The Boy from Boskovice: A Father’s Secret Life by Vicky Unwin
I’m always interested in reading World War II memoirs and histories, so I jumped at the chance to review Vicky Unwin’s second book, The Boy from Boskovice, which delves into the life of her refugee father. Touted as the piecing together of a life filled with secrets, most notably the Jewish origins the author’s father kept hidden from her, I actually got a lot more than I’d bargained for with this book. Far from being a simple search for lost ancestors, the retelling of a mysterious past, The Boy from Boskovice is a personal memoir of sorts, an attempt by the author to come to terms with the psychological damage inflicted by a manipulative family member. Tackling grief, bereavement, illness and abusive relationships with honesty, it is a carefully researched and interesting account that moves far beyond the bounds of its intended story.
Tom Unwin, who was born Tomas Ungar, escaped from Czechoslovakia in 1939 as war loomed over Europe, finding safety and eventually a new identity and career in Britain. He went on to work for the UN and development organisations in various foreign postings – what was then Tanganyika, Kenya, the Philippines – but left a trail of personal catastrophe behind him, spread between three children and two marriages. Despite always knowing her father was Czech (though it was a fact he shared with few people, preferring to appear ‘more British than the British’), the author was unaware until late on in his life that he was also Jewish. This revelation and the discovery of a secret half-sister (Tom’s first child, whose mother he never married) prompted Unwin to research her family history and chronicle it within these pages.
Perhaps because of the way the book is framed – which automatically coloured my expectations – I found the first and shortest section most interesting. Here Unwin unravels the tale of the grandfather she never knew: Hermann Ungar, a now comparatively little-known Czech author who was mentored by Thomas Mann and friendly with literary luminaries such as Stefan Zweig. A temperamental man, to say the least, Ungar’s life was clouded by fits of deep depression and tempestuous relationships, an uneven course that would later be reflected in his son’s life. Unwin probes his character against the backdrop of early-twentieth-century Prague society in a series of letters (many translated by the author’s father and found among his papers), diary entries and other archive materials that offer a fascinating glimpse of a vanished world and left me keen to learn more about Ungar.
From here the book moves on to the life of Tom Unwin, who left for England in 1939 and was followed by his mother and younger brother (Hermann Ungar, his father, died in 1929). ‘The loss of his family and his homeland [was] never spoken about,’ Unwin tells us, and indeed Tom went on to build a stellar career in the navy and international development, all the while appearing the very picture of an Englishman. The details of his life in East Africa, where he lived for several years with his first wife, Sheila, and where the author was born, are also illuminating, providing insights into a colonial lifestyle that is all the more unsettling for being fairly recent. Unwin has again made good use of family letters and peppers her account with photographs that bring to life the places and characters in her descriptions.
At this point The Boy from Boskovice does begin to drift a little, becoming a rather painful account of Tom and Sheila’s failing relationship – infidelities on both sides, recriminations, a series of increasingly bitter letters and, at the heart of it all, the young author, who had the awful experience of being ‘a pawn in the game of [her] parents’ broken marriage’. Even before this, Tom Unwin has been exposed as a manipulative and abusive character, but the author recalls with stark honesty how he changed in her eyes from the ‘hero’ of her childhood to the cruel man who would inform her adult life. As she grows up and starts her own family, we witness the role played for Unwin by her relationship with her father – and, to a lesser extent, her mother, a bond characterised mainly by ‘the regret of unspoken words’ – and are given, too, an intimate portrait of grief following the hammer blow of her daughter’s death at the age of twenty-one.
While each of these elements is important in its own right – and handled with admirable sensitivity and honesty – to me it felt at times as though the story had become too large for its framework, causing the narrative to somewhat lose its focus and making one book feel as though it could have been two. While complex themes such as survivors’ guilt and inherited trauma are touched upon, this is done with a very light hand and so, for me, Tom Unwin’s history came to have no bearing on his later life. Though it is brought back in towards the ending – as the author points out, we are all ‘survivors of our own respective histories’ – in my experience of reading the book the Boskovice element of the title went largely forgotten; instead, it seemed to be a father memoir, an exploration of a fractured relationship and its wide-reaching effects.
I can entirely understand why this book was written. It reverberates with a need for closure and ends with a sense of forgiveness. Unwin tells her story with great compassion for figures such as her mother – whose wartime experiences are chronicled in her first book, Love and War in the WRNS – and maintains a largely equitable tone forced perhaps by a deep-seated desire to understand her father. The shattering losses he experienced as a boy and consequently never spoke of are taken into account, and I was left wondering (as I think the author is) about what his real feelings may have been. As with so many memoirs like this, silence is the truly destructive force at work here, and there is a sobering sense that no matter how much research the author might be able to undertake, some aspects of the story have vanished for good.
There is a sense, too, upon completion, that many other stories have yet to be told. At the end of the book Unwin provides us with a brief summary of the fates of her Jewish relatives, many of whom were murdered in concentration camps or vanished from Czechoslovakia without trace. There is no doubt much more to be uncovered here, just as the brief and stormy life of Hermann Ungar could be followed up on by the reader – or, one day perhaps, the author – and it is a grim reminder of just how much silence settles on families across the world in the wake of war. In attempting to counteract that silence, Unwin has written a book from the heart, reminding us of the power that words – both voiced and unvoiced – can have.
The Boy from Boskovice: A Father’s Secret Life by Vicky Unwin is published by Unbound in digital and hardback. Many thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for arranging a review copy and a place on the publication blog tour.