This true-life story of human endurance is genuinely gripping, a factual account written with the requisite polish and panache to make it as riveting as any fictionalised adventure tale, yet every chapter rings with the echo of authenticity. It’s every bit as grim and as gritty as any noir novel, but does ultimate justice to the inner strength of an indomitable human spirit.
The title does the story few favours, making this book sound like a typically melancholic Scandinavian murder-mystery. Instead it’s a graphic, detailed account of a military operation which went horribly wrong, back in WW2 when Norway was occupied by Nazi forces. A Norwegian resistance unit sneaks from the British Shetlands to the northern fjords, on a fishing boat stuffed to the gunwales with explosives and equipment. Yet before they can even land safely, everything goes horribly wrong.
And it’s here that the story really begins, with Jan, the surviving fighter, isolated in an utterly unfamiliar landscape, facing torture and execution if captured. He doesn’t know who he can trust; any locals he involves run the same risks as he does, and the weather, water and towering mountains stand between him and a possible safe haven in Sweden…
The writing is crisp, descriptive without being fussy, detailed enough to explain the situation without overwhelming the reader in acres of exposition. Half of the chapters end on a cliff-hanger – and that’s not simply through deft story-telling on the part of David Howarth, the author, but because that’s how the actual events unravelled. Jan faced a seemingly insurmountable series of disasters – frostbite, septicaemia, starvation, avalanche, abandonment, being buried alive – yet somehow contrives not to die, not to sleep, not to be swallowed by the deep, welcoming snowdrifts.
The story also reflects the bravery of the people who helped him, and of those who died during this operation. It’s a powerful reminder of the strength of the human spirit, told with subtlety and quite some style. How it hasn’t been made into a blockbuster movie is a total mystery.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
We Die Alone by David Howarth is available as a paperback or ebook