Last review of the year, I’m afraid. I’m having the next week or so off – I may not even read anything! Actually, that’s a lie – I’m going to read all seven Harry books in one go. Stay tuned. Anyway, to finish the year, I figured this was as good a choice as any – I’ve been meaning to read it since Steven Conte came to work to ask if it was selling at all.
Australian woman Vera and her German husband, Axel, look after the Berlin Zoo. Unfortunately for them, it is the middle of World War 2, and Berlin is not a safe place – for human or animal. As the war progresses, and secrets emerge, questions of what it means to be faithful, safe, and human, arise. Along with their close friend, Flavia, they must deal with the changing world of Berlin, and the people fighting to control it.
This is a very, very strong debut novel. Conte’s style and pacing are self-assured and confident, and the language doesn’t feel clunky or forced. On the contrary, it is subtle and restrained, allowing other things to shine through. And the best thing that this novel does is give us a sense of place – as clichéd as it is to say, Berlin truly becomes a character in this novel. Conte is able to accurately and beautifully evoke a sense of a city under siege, a city for which time is running out, and there is a sense of quiet resignation to the novel, from both the city and the people that inhabit it. This is a city under attack, where politics and ideologies are everything – the inhabitants are not just under attack from the bombers overhead. People have turned against each other, political ideals have been suppressed, and if you have the urge to criticise the regime, it won’t end well. This, I think, is what makes Flavia so great – she’s kind of what we all imagine the 1920s and 30s in Europe to be, and she’s stuck in the middle of a fascist regime. Beautiful stuff.
While the sense of place and time is perfectly evoked, some of the characters are a bit flimsy. Especially Axel. Not that he’s two-dimensional or badly written, he’s just not there often enough for us to truly grasp who and what he is. Similarly, Vera’s other love interest, the Czech, is only present when he needs to be with Vera, and despite always saying the right things, he seems to come off a little shallow, and looking for only one thing.
Which brings me to the ending of the novel. I don’t think I’m spoiling history by saying that the Soviets come and invade East Germany? Good. Because sex plays a vitally important role in the closing chapters of the book. From the fear of the bomb comes the inevitable fear of the body. Suddenly, all the women are hiding from the Ivans, and the men are being chivalrous and hiding them in lofts. But at what price? Axel himself finds out, and the final scene leaves us with a disturbing image – Axel becomes a metaphor for the entire German nation, and it has been raped and pillaged by outsiders, something that it will never be able to forget, even though it will try again and again to block it out of its memory.
I’m still not sure why this book left me a bit cold in the end. Sure, it’s a great read, and very good, considering it is a debut, but there’s something missing. The ‘it’ factor, maybe. A bit of soul, perhaps. Maybe there can’t be, though. Wartime Berlin is so bleak and unforgiving, that maybe this novel could never have been anything else.