In Brandenburg, Germany, in 1993, Michael Ritter loses everything, and everyone, he ever cared about. His wife tosses him out; his mother, with whom he now lives, is dying; and he has just been fired from his teaching job because of his pre-reunification affiliation with the previous East German political regime. His politics, his family, his life: all are rendered either non-existent or a black mark against him. Petra Ritter’s dying words, the only ones she ever utters about Michael’s father, send him on a search for the truth about his origins and force him to examine his long-held beliefs about the how the world operates.
Michael’s story bookends the middle section of the book, told from the perspective of Roland Feldmann; Roland, and at times, Petra, describe the few days in 1962 that took this young Irishman from a brief vacation in London to a police station holding cell to the streets of East Berlin. The fear, the feeling of always being watched, of the smell and peeling paint of the dank, concrete housing blocks, are strongly evoked, and these contrast sharply with Michael’s feeling, 30 years later, that something good was lost with reunification. As Michael pieces together Roland’s story, from government records and Stasi reports, he sees a side of East Germany that doesn’t fit with his world view, yet he perseveres, following the trail to its very end.
Brophy’s tale of how it feels to be on the other side of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the side which didn’t welcome western intrusion, capitalism, and brightly lit, overstuffed stores and homes, gives one pause about assumptions that much of the world made about “rescuing” those who didn’t necessarily feel they needed to be saved.