This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring, a moment of hope for political reform in Czechoslovakia that was upended when the Soviet Union invaded. A recently closed exhibit at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library highlighted the fragile, doomed attempt to create a socialist system that would serve the people of Czechoslovakia.
Novelist Simon Mawer also looks back to those turbulent times in his new book, “Prague Spring.” The intertwining narrative introduces us to James and Eleanor, two Oxford students hitching across Europe in the summer of 1968 who, through a series of events largely governed by chance, find their way to Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, Sam Wareham, a British diplomat stationed in Prague begins an affair with a Czech student. He’s careful, but might not be careful enough. And looming in background is the Soviet army.
Mawer strikes a jocular tone in the book’s early going, and the prose remains fairly breezy — though often with a dark edge — in a manner one doesn’t often encounter in spy fiction. It serves the novel well, as we watch characters deeply concerned with their own affairs stumble into events of worldwide significance.
There are a variety of sexual dynamics at play throughout the book, and Mawer handles them well. The story, though told in the third person, is focused on the points of view of the male characters, in large part to obscure the motivations of the female characters. Nevertheless, Mawer avoids the trap of oversexualizing the women or under developing their character.
“Prague Spring” is a breath of fresh air in the historical thriller genre.