Patrick Worrall’s The Partisan is a highly-recommended, fast and twisting read spanning the 1940s and the 1960s in Britain, USSR, Germany, Lithuania, and Spain.
Michael, just out of high school and just-admitted to Oxford, is selected for a chess tournament in which a high-ranking USSR official’s daughter, Yulia, is also competing. This sets up a problematic romance that plays out across the Iron Curtain. Yulia’s father has apparently defected and her and Michael’s romance is made use of by both sides of the Cold War to track down the defector.
A parallel story is told in which Greta, a Lithuanian freedom fighter/partisan who protected two Jewish friends by living in the Lithuanian forest as the Nazi occupation was replaced by the Soviet occupation. The story of how they first fled into the forest, avoided detection, and then went onto the attack was a compelling read and is a chapter of WW2 and the Cold war that isn’t told often enough.
There is an interesting sub-story in which one of the USSR official recalls his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War, helping to set the scene for the book’s climax.
Greta’s life and missions since the end of WW2 involve tracking down ex-Nazis and exacting revenge for their war crimes. And revenge for the deaths of her two Jewsih friends, killed in the last days of WW2. Greta’s primary target is now a high-ranking official in the USSR machine and so the two stories collide with deadly effect when Yulia and Michael meet in Spain in an effort to meet Yulia’s father. Greta is also there to meet the last of her targets. The suspense builds to a crescendo in a cafe in Spain.
I enjoyed the book. It was well-paced, the characters felt real and their dialogue felt authentic. I’d have liked to have read more about chess strategies and how they can be/were converted into strategies for the characters’ real lives. The book was well-written and so it easy to read and to keep track of the characters, their interactions and the various plot lines. Perhaps more could have been written to develop the settings. I certainly recommend the book to readers interested in intrigue, WW2/Cold War, and suspense.
Lingering notes: I read this during the first few days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine with the obvious undertones of USSR reunification. As The Partisan is somewhat centred on the issue of the Soviets’ ‘mistreatment’ of Lithuanians and also one person’s mission to right the wrong of war crimes, I couldn’t help thinking that these two plot lines would’ve been better told in separate books. Each story would’ve made an excellent read on its own. Combining them seemed contrived and unnecessarily complicated this one story. I still highly recommend it though.