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What Remains at the End

Alexandra Ford
Publication Date: 
Monday, October 14, 2019
Average: 4 (1 vote)

‘Ford’s book is as much about the retreading of history as it is about history itself. It’s about the search for the truth as a way of understanding the truth of ourselves. She is careful not to forget the small kindnesses and cruelties that live within the sweep of world forces. This book is both an education and a song of the heartache.’​ – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

"What Remains at the End is an astonishing debut -- a remarkable balancing act.  Alexandra Ford negotiates a delicate, fraught emotional landscape with acute sensitivity, complex self-awareness and extraordinary empathy.  It would be easy to overload the reader with such a many-stranded story, but Ford is as skilled at silence as she is at words. She knows precisely how to move between the many threads of her narrative, leaving the reader aghast or deliberately perplexed or wryly amused, and longing to read on." – Alexander Masters

“a deeply personal, startlingly honest, and devastating portrayal of the lasting effects of communal and generational trauma.” – Wales Arts Review

In the aftermath of World War II, hundreds of thousands of Yugoslavia’s ethnic Germans, the Danube Swabians, were expelled by Tito’s Partisan regime. A further sixty thousand were killed. 

Seventy years later, Marie Kohler’s marriage is falling apart. She’s seeing someone new, an enigmatic man named David, who takes her to the former Yugoslavia to find the truth behind her grandparents’ flight to America.

Alternating between the late 1940s and contemporary Serbia, Marie’s story is interwoven with those of Tito’s victims – a young survivor who has lost his mother and his identity, a woman held captive in a sugar factory, a refugee girl living in Austria under the din of air raid sirens. Her journey follows the Danube in search of connection in the face of loss. Connection to the lost souls, to the memory of her grandfather, to the man beside her, to her grandmother suffering Alzheimer’s back home.

What Remains at the End considers what happens when the truth goes unspoken, and asks how it can be recovered, if there is anything left to recover, in the face of so many secrets. Alexandra Ford has written an intriguing debut novel of personal relationships played out against some of the very worst results of realpolitik, where human life is subjugated to political and national ideology.


Review by Victoria Lothian, DURA

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Alexandra Ford’s debut novel, What Remains at the End is a fearless attempt to convey the atrocities suffered by Danube Swabians in 1940s Yugoslavia at the hands of Tito’s Partisan regime. Many of this German-speaking ethnic minority fled, seeking refuge as far as America; of those who stayed, tens of thousands died, either perishing in labour camps through starvation or brutal murder. Ford offers us tales of genocide and atrocities of war that are difficult to read, and were presumably painful to write.

The main narrative centres on Marie Kohler as she comes to terms with her grandmother’s dementia and the loss of her grandfather. Marie’s sorrow coincides with the failure of her marriage to Sid to whom she no longer feels connected. Having embarked on an affair with the enigmatic David, Marie’s future is uncertain as she questions her identity. After her grandfather’s death, she discovers that her Danube Swabian grandparents had been forced to flee war-time Yugoslavia and seek refuge in America, where they remained, dispersed from family and their ravished homeland. Shocked and intrigued by these revelations, Marie decides to piece together her grandparents’ history in order to understand their plight and her own heritage. David and Marie travel to Europe to visit her grandparents’ former country, now contemporary Serbia, curious to learn more of her family’s unspoken past.

The protagonist’s tragic and troubled family history would have been enough to engage the reader but Ford boldly interweaves Marie’s story with accounts of Tito’s victims, giving context and depth to the history that unravels throughout her journey. The alternating narrative provides contrast between present and past, the living and dead, hope and hopelessness; the traumatic experience of reading wartime Yugoslavia is relieved by Marie’s present-day preoccupations of identity and love. Ford recounts children forced into horrific labour conditions: a stolen boy offered to Partisans by a couple desperately trying to spare their own son; a young girl disfigured for life by a soldier’s brutality. Families were tortured; homes burned; loved ones brutally massacred. Ford’s candour is striking and resonates long after the book is finished:

When I was eleven, I ate lice off the dead girl next to me. Louse exoskeletons cracked between my teeth and her stale blood spread over my tongue.

Marie is haunted by the atrocities she uncovers on her journey through Serbia. The ruins of forgotten labour camps, neglected cemeteries and empty war-torn towns impact her significantly as horrors integrate from past into present—a simple radio crackling sounds to her ‘like dry throats choking on mud’. The revelations of historical evils too shocking to cast aside.

It is difficult to comprehend how Ford felt as she wrote these words yet the writer insists that these are stories that must be told ‘because they show us the world and teach us who we are’. Among unspoken truths of war, there is more than comprehensible human failing, misunderstanding and prejudice. What Remains at the End addresses a subject far more sinister—the human capacity for evil―and this is where Ford’s novel breaks barriers. With bold and courageous commitment to conveying unthinkable evil from piles of bodies to burning dogs to children burying their own naked fathers, this is an assertive debut that offers more than the complexities of human identity and relationship struggles. Through Marie, Ford reveals how suffering and displacement seeps through into subsequent generations:

Ships and planes might have brought Swabian refugees to America, but chains would hold them to the streets lined with walnut trees and to the bodies left behind.

As I would be followed and bound by my shadows.

What Remains at the End explores individual and communal identity in both war and peace time, confirming an inextricable link to the history of our families, countries and ethnicity. Yet, it’s the terrifying tales of persecution punctuating the narrative that remains with the reader.

Highlights from the ‘What Remains at the End’ Blog Tour organised by Love Books:

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

"I was blown away by the power of this book - it certainly packs an emotional punch. A very impressive and powerful debut indeed and a book that I will be thinking about for a long time to come." - Brown Flopsy's Book Burrow. Read full review

"If you like learning about history via fiction, especially a part of history not really discussed, I totally recommend grabbing yourself a copy of What Remains at the End." - Joyful Antidotes. Read full review

"There are no easy answers here, no straightforward resolutions but What Remains at the End is a thoughtful, perceptive and honest novel which reminds us that our desire to understand where we are from will often require confronting the painful tragedies of the past. A memorable, important debut." - Hair Past A Freckle. Read full review

"Written against a backdrop of horrific historical drama, this is a hard-hitting debut." - Jan's Book Buzz. Read full review

"Alexandra’s prose is simple yet eloquent. Beautiful but heart breaking. Hard to believe this is a debut novel. I will certainly read more of her work in the future. For me a superb read!" - BertyBoy123. Read full review

"Alexandra Ford’s writing is beautiful. It captivated my heart and took me on this emotional journey of a time that hasn’t been well spoken about. A time, I imagine, many of us are ignorant of. Just simply beautiful." - Jessica Belmont. Read full review

"It was utterly incredibly, interesting, sickening, heartbreaking, traumatic, eye opening and puts our lives now into perspective.⁣ I recommend reading this and opening your own eyes.⁣ What Remains At The End...our memories and our history."⁣ - Lost in Her Bookland. Read full review

"A must read. The book is so beautifully written. There are some parts that are heavy, but without those parts the book wouldn't be what it is. There is no sugar coating but Alexandra Ford has done an excellent job. Delicately put together but it has strength behind it. If you like your historical fiction I highly recommend this book." - Cen-sational Reads. Watch full review

Review by Brown Flopsy's Book Burrow

Monday, March 2, 2020

I was blown away by the power of this book - it certainly packs an emotional punch.

The story weaves back and forth between Marie's journey,  and her musings on her relationship with her beloved grandparents, the failure of her marriage, the beginnings of her new relationship with David, and the terrible events of the past (mostly just after the war, but also with an intriguing glimpse around the time of Tito's death) - so the present (2012) is interspersed with the experiences of Tito's victims.

I was aware of the name Tito, somewhere in the back of my mind, but I knew next to nothing about the man that went on to become the dictator that held sway over Yugoslavia for so many years, until his death in 1980. I most certainly had not heard at all about the ethnic Germans who were forced out of Yugoslavia in the aftermath of WWII - not to mention, the forced labour camps and downright extermination meted out to these people. This was a revelation, albeit an uncomfortable and shocking one. Interestingly, it seems this episode in history remains as one which is hidden from sight, like a dirty secret.

This book is best described as haunting. It is true to say that this is not a book with any sense of light relief in its pages, and it is quite a serious read as a result, but it has a very important message. The weight of the past and hidden secrets hang heavy and Alexandra Ford uses this beautifully against the ups and downs of both a marriage that has failed and the new shoots of a burgeoning romance - and the feeling of oppression is echoed in the atmosphere of the places Marie and David visit on their journey, where great efforts have been made to keep the truth hidden from sight.

What Remains At The End is a very impressive and powerful debut indeed and a book that I will be thinking about for a long time to come.

Thank you to Alexandra Ford and Seren Books for providing me with a copy of this book in return for an honest review, and to Kelly Lacy of Love Books Tours for inviting me to be part of this tour.

Review by Gemma Pearson, Wales Arts Review

Thursday, November 28, 2019

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Yugoslavia’s ethnic German population – the Danube Swabians – suffered harsh persecution under Tito’s new Partisan regime. While many fled, desperately seeking refuge in countries such as America and France, hundreds of thousands were moved to labour camps and murdered. The total number killed in the Swabian genocide is estimated at around sixty thousand. Given the atrocities carried out by the National Socialist Party in the previous years, it is perhaps unsurprising that the plight of the Danube Swabian community is frequently eclipsed. Shedding light on a cultural moment that is frequently relegated to the shadows, Alexandra Ford’s stirring debut novel examines Swabian death and displacement, the lingering effects of communal and generational trauma, and our innate desire to understand who we are and where we come from.

Ford’s protagonist is Marie Kohler, a modern-day American woman whose Swabian grandparents fled to New Jersey in the 1940s. Marie’s grandparents are reluctant to talk about their lives in Eastern Europe, inciting in Marie a formidable yearning for answers. When painstaking research finally presents Marie with mappable locations central to her family’s story, she travels to former Yugoslavia with David, an exciting and mysterious man who encourages and facilitates the journey of self-discovery. Driven by a desire for affinity with her ancestors, Marie vigilantly trawls the terrain of her familial history, combing deserted villages and sequestered farmlands for any hint of a familial connection. To her simultaneous dismay and relief, Marie finds several neglected memorials, overgrown cemeteries, and the long-forgotten ruins of death camps and mass, unmarked graves. While these relics offer Marie a degree of comfort, reassuring her that the lives of those lost have been in some way memorialised, their derelict states stand as ghostly reminders that the past is easily forgotten when time marches on and it no longer seems to affect us.

But Ford does not let us forget what did happen because, employing a timeline that alternates between Marie’s travels and Serbia in the mid 1940s, the principal narrative intersects with a series of harrowing accounts from Tito’s victims. A young boy held in a labour camp; a girl left facially disfigured following a brutal attack by invading soldiers; and a family forced out of their home and separated, are all given space to tell a side of history often misrepresented. As a result, each chapter builds on the last to create a rounded story of past and present suffering, opening up questions of recovery and inspiring readers to consider how we should begin the process of salvaging a hidden history and reclaiming concealed truths.

The overarching impression given by Ford’s confident and controlled first novel is that the history of the Swabian genocide lingers throughout generations and family lines, haunting all of those it touches with varying intensity. Having grown up with Swabian grandparents herself, What Remains at the End is a deeply personal, startlingly honest, and devastating portrayal of the lasting effects of communal and generational trauma. Perhaps the most striking element of Ford’s novel is her adept ability to convey the overwhelming, and, at times suffocating, feeling that history has a habit of living with us, following us, and seeping into every aspect of the present as we blindly move onwards not recognising its grip. Ford’s novel reminds us how the past shapes us both as individuals and as collective nations, because, to quote Ford herself, history is “something living on our shoulders.”

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