"National and world events are shown through Ella’s eyes and like most ordinary people at that time, they hardly touch her except for the tension expressed by her employers and colleagues. The atmosphere is realistically and very deftly evoked. "
1960s East Berlin was a tense and dangerous place. And Leah Moyes draws this very well indeed. Her protagonist, teenager Ella, has had a rough start in life and doesn’t expect much. However, she has the rock-solid anchors of her best friend Anton and younger brother Josef and her love for her adoptive father until the infamous barrier which became the Berlin Wall went up in 1961. But Ella is conflicted. Does she take a chance to escape with Anton and Stefan – a decision she must make in minutes – or does she stay to care for her dying father? Her inner strength shows us her answer as well as the resilience in the way she makes the best of the stressful consequences. But Ella is no ‘Mary Sue’; she is emotionally and socially constrained because of her early life, unable to relate to others except to Anton and Josef. She longs to escape in every way as signified by her artistic expression in the form of the butterfly pictures she produces.
Moyes cleverly demonstrates the privilege, yet the fragile position, of the nomenklatura, the party rulers of East Germany as well as the restricted and harsh life of the majority of the population. Her research and world building are thorough. National and world events are shown through Ella’s eyes and like most ordinary people at that time, they hardly touch her except for the tension expressed by her employers and colleagues. The atmosphere is realistically and very deftly evoked.
The plot unfolds naturally at a smooth pace, neither slow nor rushed. We follow Ella as she unfolds like a butterfly from a chrysalis, wondering at her own emotional flowering. But she is all too aware of crossing the iron boundaries separating the new classes in the DDR when she starts to experience very deep feelings for a member of the elite.
This is an entrancing story well told and with a very engaging protagonist. As a German-speaker I enjoyed the little drips of language which enhanced the setting, but many readers will appreciate the comprehensive glossary the author has provided. Only one thing, well, possibly two things detract: I read the Kindle version and was disappointed to find a proportion of the formatting was haywire; something to check given that Amazon is the world’s biggest ebook retailer. The other is that a very enjoyable read has been negatively affected by a lack of editing. At one point I wondered if the author was a non-native English speaker. Once edited professionally, this book would have nothing to stop it flying high.
© Jessica Brown
* we review novels set post 1953 at our discretion
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