West by Julia Franck and Anthea Bell (translator)

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West by Julia Franck and Anthea Bell (translator)

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: The bleakness of a 1970s internment camp for those crossing the Iron Curtain to the West – unfortunately, that bleakness is too evident on the page for my taste.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: October 2015
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099554325

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Put yourself in the shoes of a young mother to two children, who declares her intention to leave the Communist East Germany for West Berlin, and thus loses her scientist job. What would you expect on the other side – shops full of attainable products, pleasant neighbourhoods, nice neighbours, an active and busy new life, where things might feel alien but at least you speak the same language? Well, for Nelly Senff, this is hardly the case. Once past the depressing Eastern exit procedures she is confronted with more desultory interrogations from those 'welcoming' her to the West, beyond which she and her children (their father, whom she never married, is long assumed dead by the authorities, if nobody else) are practically left in a shared accommodation in a transit camp. The shops are full of what is still unobtainable, the children hate their new school – and people still look down on them as being foreign, even if they have only moved across a city.

There is more to the book than this storyline – there is also a Polish woman of some size caring for her idle father and her brother, who caused the whole family to move West when he was diagnosed with cancer, a man of diminished stature who creeps round the transit camp, and even one of the CIA workers who does the processing for Nelly and others. We're introduced to them all – and more – through alternating chapters, all bravely in the first person, and a lot of time will be spent waiting to nail down all the connections and even the very timeline the chapters share. There's a lot about the style of this book that's worth a mention – a little too much of the dialogue is unattributed to my taste, causing careful rereading at times, for one – but for me the whole book rests on the dour mood everything conveys.

This is a world of much drabness, and even the colour when it arrives is inappropriate – Nelly's thin summer dress worn too close to winter for her own good. Unfortunately, wherever the characters go all they seem to hear on the radio is Boney M – the song itself appeared to be trying in vain to promote a good mood. It's clear that nobody has really reached their own Zion, and nobody has much to sing about. What's also clear is that, however well the time and the place is evoked, this could almost be a tale about any emigrant, any refugee in any camp anywhere.

So, you'd assume this to have some immediate, current relevance. Well, it does, inasmuch as it's over a decade old. This was the author's second novel, and now is her third to be in English. I might have rushed a translation out seeing the success of the movie The Lives of Others, with which it shares a lot of DNA – drabness, and a literary approach to telling a story that abuts the thriller genre, if not more. Perhaps it was helped along to our shores because it has itself been filmed, which I can partly see working – I can point to a cinematic, widescreen claustrophobia in the first chapter with no sense of irony whatsoever. But at the same time I wouldn't have thought the actual story here has enough heft to create something that would leave the arthouse cinemas for the mainstream. It's down to the intricate narrative style, where so much information is presented by so many people in too similar a way – everyone's interior monologue remains in the fashion of a literary author and not a real person. The forensic detail never detracts from the mood, and the world-building detail – even the minor characters blossom in this way (I loved the way the natures of Nelly's children changed, her into a rampant fantasist and he to a self-aware master of the house, even aware to the extent that he finds his own reason for his maturation). That detail and the dourness it provides does however detract from the enjoyment – this remains a major step away from light reading, and is there for the educational connect with that time and place rather than any pure enjoyment.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

The Blind Side of the Heart by Julia Franck is deemed this author's pinnacle title. For a convoluted factual look at Berlin life since WWII, we can do what many people did, and recommend Red Love: The Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo. Anthea Bell also translated The Stronger Sex by Hans Werner Kettenbach.

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Buy West by Julia Franck and Anthea Bell (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy West by Julia Franck and Anthea Bell (translator) at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy West by Julia Franck and Anthea Bell (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy West by Julia Franck and Anthea Bell (translator) at Amazon.com.


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