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The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and brother and sister Thomas and Ella are growing up near Berlin under the oppressive communist regime. But it is not the only difficulty they face, for their mother Käthe, a Jewish sculptor, who survived the war by escaping to Italy, is a neglectful and cruel single parent. Ella is sexually abused by Käthe’s lodger, a Communist Party official which seems to be the part of the price for Käthe receiving official commissions. Ella retreats into mental illness, while Thomas, an intelligent and sensitive pacifist vegetarian (not exactly the type to thrive in the harsh GDR regime) writes poetry to create an inner space to escape the suffocating communist society, which is made worse when the wall is built in August 1961. When Thomas starts work in a hospital and falls in love with an unhappily married nurse, Marie, who is also a mother, then the novel comes to its rather gloomy conclusion.
This is indeed a rather bleak literary novel. There is close, poetic observation that shows the dull, plodding and nasty life under Soviet communist control in post-Nazi- defeated East Germany. It absorbs and engages, with the unpleasant figure of Käthe seemingly based on Julia Franck’s grandmother, the sculptor Ingeborg Hunzinger, who died in 2009. I have to say though that once again, and to repeat an observation I made of Franck’s The Blind Side of the Heart which I reviewed for HNR in 2009, the lack of punctuation to denote speech often makes reading challenging just to distinguish between a character speaking and the author. I just do not understand why this fashion is currently acceptable in good writing.