Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Though its broad strokes may seem simple from up above, war always entails a tremendous amount of complexity for those caught in its throes. No decisions are inconsequential, and no dreams have any sort of guarantee. In his novel The Circumstantial Enemy, John Bell tells a complicated story based on the life of his father-in-law about a young Croat pilot who finds himself forcibly aligned with the Luftwaffe. Unbeknownst to him though, his best friend as well as his sweetheart stand on the opposite side of the fence, aligned with the communist partisans.
Table of contents
A War-Torn Excursion with John Bell
The major players in the Second World War had their stories chronicles profoundly, becoming an essential cornerstone in any education system. Needless to say, covering the entire extent of the war’s consequences is something most people simply don’t have the time for, which is a shame considering all the intricate stories we have yet to reveal. It takes a special predilection and dedication to delve below the surface of common knowledge, but once you take the plunge a whole new wealth of virgin knowledge awaits.
Yugoslavia’s involvement in the Second World War is often overlooked and relegated to nothing but a side note, or at most, a paragraph in most history books. Despite the fact that they capitulated quickly and without too much of a fuss, the history of those people doesn’t end there… as a matter of fact, for many of them like Tony Babic in John Bell‘s The Circumstantial Enemy, life is only about to begin.
The book opens in 1941, when the Independent State of Croatia had already been formed. The only independence it really carried was in its name as it served as a puppet state of the Third Reich, and while many people were opposed to the occupation, many others tolerated it, if not outright supported them as opponents of communism. We make the acquaintance of the afore-mentioned Tony, his best friend Goran, and Katarina, the sweetheart that has set both of their worlds alight. With the Luftwaffe always in need of more pilots, Tony finds himself conscripted and sent away to fight the Allies.
Meanwhile, Goran and Katarina stay behind, and unbeknownst to him, join the other side of the war: the communist partisans. As they work towards freeing the country from Nazi rule, Tony makes his way through the Italian and North African theaters, ultimately finding himself in a prisoner of war camp in the United States. With the end of the war looming over them, the three friends finally draw closer after years of separation… however, time has taken its toll, and all of them bear the shaping scars of their ordeals.
A Cure for Boredom
Novels which focus on the human elements in a time of war commonly suffer from the same affliction: they fail to create tension or move the plot forward due to the perceived need to develop characters as much as possible. This is one thing which has been bugging me in this genre, and I’m delighted to say that John Bell has avoided this pitfall as masterfully as anyone possibly could.
From the very start of The Circumstantial Enemy when we get to meet the three friends we already sense some tension brewing between them, and as we get to know them more and more we realize that despite their closeness their relation is a barrel of gunpowder ready to go off at any moment.
In war, there is no such thing as neutrality. Everyone must choose a side.― John Bell, The Circumstantial Enemy
There are also very few descriptive passages that overstay their welcome, with John Bell throwing in a healthy mix of dialogues and action which keep the plot moving along at a relatively quick pace. The events actually unfold rather quickly over two hundred and seventy pages covering a period of just a bit over ten years, so we seldom have the time to get bored and fall asleep. There are more than a few twists and turns to keep you on your toes, and all of that is accomplished while staying truthful to the historical course of events.
A Window into the Forgotten
In my opinion, the latter parts of the book which deal with Tony’s return to his now-communist homeland and reunites with his friends are the most interesting. Bell has certainly done his fair share of research and I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the pages once he began to describe this life after the war… a peace the people were forced into just as much as they were thrust into the heart of conflict.
We get to hear the ruminations, dreams and hopes of the people affected by this whole ordeal, what it’s like to change one oppressor for another. While it may sound a tad counter-intuitive, but this is the part where we really learn that seldom can we identify wartime events through a black-and-white spectrum… in the end, very few are those who don’t want to live in peace, it’s just that their ideas of prosperity differ from each other.
The author also does a magnificent job at portraying the ever-shifting relationship between the three main characters. While I did wonder a couple of times at the beginning why Goran and Tony were such good friends, in time that concept settled in and it was smooth sailing from there on out.
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We go through alongside them all of the pain and suffering they endure, the moral and emotional dilemmas they have to face, and the half-disappointing, half-hopeful realities they confront… it’s safe to say that by the end of it, the group of three friends expands to accommodate a fourth one.
The Final Verdict
To bring this review to a conclusion, The Circumstantial Enemy by John Bell is without a doubt one of the more engaging and enjoyable historical fiction novels I have had the pleasure of reading recently… and that goes double if we’re just taking into account World War II stories.
It’s eventful, emotional, educative, and engaging every step of the way, from the descriptions of grand historical events to the small banter shared between minor characters. It’s a book I highly recommend if you enjoy Second World War novels which focus on the little people and the odysseys they are thrust into.
We ought to put Stalin and Hitler in a hole,” Tony said. “Let them duke it out one on one. The war goes to whoever crawls out.― John Bell, The Circumstantial Enemy
John Bell is an author, blogger, specialist in strategy and branding, and former CEO of Jacobs Suchard, a Fortune 500 company. Now that he has retired he runs a blog called CEO Afterlife where he shares his reflections on leadership, branding, and life in general.
So far he has written one self-help book titled Do Less Better. The Power of Strategic Sacrifice in a Complex World and a World War II novel, The Circumstantial Enemy.