Sektion 20 by Paul Dowswell

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Sektion 20 by Paul Dowswell

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Fascinating look at life in Cold War East Germany and how difficult it was if you didn't conform. We loved this one - it combines awesome, accurate research with genuine tension and sympathetic, well-rounded characters.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: September 2011
Publisher: Bloomsbury
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 1408808633

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Longlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2013

It's the early 1970s and Alex is living with his family in East Berlin. His Western counterparts are enjoying Coca Cola, fashion and rock music, but Alex can only dream of these things. His time is spent at school listening to endless lectures on the superiority of the socialist system or avoiding saying what he really thinks, even when he's with his family and closest friends. Nobody in East Berlin wants to come to the attention of the Stasi, the state security service.

But Alex is becoming disillusioned with the socialist system. He's fed up with the cars that break down, the empty-shelved shops, the lack of creativity. He dreams of being a rock guitarist - but in East Germany, even humming the songs in public is out of the question. As his rebelliousness grows, Alex's life becomes more and more difficult. His teachers write reports about him. His girlfriend's parents disapprove of him. And eventually, the Stasi come knocking...

I can see Sektion 20 making it into recommended reading lists for teens studying history. Dowswell's research, as ever, is utterly awesome and this book is full of the small details that really foster an understanding of what it was like to live in the surveillance society of post-war East Germany. A fridge is a luxury, a haircut is a sign of an anti-socialist personality, schoolchildren are asked - well, forced - to spy upon each other. In fact, there is so much spying and counter-spying, the whole society exists on a web of false reporting. And everyone lives with fear. But there is a critique of the Western system too - the individualism, the selfishness, the rush, the waste.

The thriller aspect of the book - will Alex be imprisoned or even executed by the Stasi? Will he find a future outside East Berlin? What about his girlfriend Sophie? Is she genuine or a Stasi plant? Will either of them ever be free from the reach of Agent Kohl? - works really well, and readers will be rooting for these two sympathetic characters with all they've got, although perhaps Agent Kohl is a little bit two-dimensional to really believe in. He needed even the tiniest of saving graces to be truly credible, I think, but he didn't have one.

I thoroughly enjoyed Sektion 20 and love the way Dowswell brings serious and political historical fiction to his readers without boring them in the slightest.


My thanks to the good people at Bloomsbury for sending the book.

Don't miss Paul Dowswell's brilliant book Auslander about a Polish orphan taken in by a Nazi family because of his Aryan appearance. The Road of Bones by Anne Fine is another brilliantly-told story of life under an authoritarian regime.

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