Paul Morgan – The Winter Palace

Penguin Books, Australia, 2024
Cover design Christa Moffitt, Christabella Designs © Penguin
Cover photography by Drunaa/Trevillion Images, Radoslaw Maciejewski/Shutterstock

Paul Morgan’s dark tale of events during World War II in Poland, Siberia and then the Middle East and finally with reference to Australia, is told in the first person by heroine Elisabeth and in the third person about her husband Anton. This literary device serves to inject a graphic immediacy to both stories, as if, in fact, we are seeing them with equal intimacy.

Paul Morgan talks to Barbie about The Winter Palace

The couple had been living an idyllic, if privileged, life on their country estate near Poznań in Poland, dubbed The Winter Palace, when Anton leaves to join the fight against the invaders, Nazi Germany and Russia, at the time allies.

While he takes on the life of an officer, he assumes that Elisabeth will be safe living with her aunt in Warsaw. However, the Winter Palace is requisitioned by the Nazis and Elisabeth is subjected to the humiliation of becoming an ‘officer’s mattress’.

Circumstances for them both become more and more dire and the vagaries of wartime communications mean that they lose contact with one another – as did millions of displaced persons. Elisabeth eventually manages to escape imprisonment by the Nazis and becomes a nurse. This changes her life as she soon becomes involved in undercover work.

Meanwhile Anton is also taken prisoner by the Russians and must feign a lowly identity. He ends up in Siberia as a woodcutter but the machinations of wartime alliances soon mean that the Russians and Poles become allies and so the prisoners are released. In turn this means he finds his way to the Middle East and comes under the protection of a Jewish community.

I limit myself to these bare bones of plot so as not to spoil any of the narrative for the reader. Suffice it to say that the experiences of both Elisabeth and Anton are terrible, a demonstration of the worst and most brutal excesses of war. However, beneath this dark matter there is an enduring love story, as neither Anton nor Elisabeth wants to give up on their hopes of reunion after the war.

The novel is bookended by Elisabeth and her story long after the war years; it is deeply and tragically ironic. This after-story should give us hope but I feel the tragedy of it, not just as a story of two star-crossed lovers but in the context of the losses of war.

This is all the more so because of the synchronicity of timing for the publication of this novel when our world news is focussed on events in regions where the story is sited.

This is a novel that raises our already acute consciousness of the futility and cruelty of war, the machinations of those in power and their effect on ‘normal citizens’, on the dehumanising consequences of conflict.

The Winter Palace itself, this grand building on its extensive estate, remains as a Romantic symbol of times lost, of class divisions and the unevenness of the lot we are born to, of the disinterested hand of fate in the concerns of mortals – there is something of the Greek tragedy in this.

The author tells me that The Winter Place, having been heavily damaged in the 20th century, is now renovated and has become a boutique hotel. More irony!

Thank you to Penguin Books for my review copy and to Paul Morgan for such an interesting conversation about history, the writing of historical fiction and this fascinating book.