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THE BERLIN LETTERS
by Katherine Reay
Harper Muse, March 2024
368 pages
$18.99
ISBN: 1400243068


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In 1961 East Berlin, a young woman hands her three-year-old child over the fence to her father in West Berlin. In 1989, on the eve of the Berlin Wall's fall, that child has become a CIA operative, Luisa Voekler, an expert cryptologist. Her most challenging puzzle is a personal one: a collection of letters written by her father on the East side of the wall to her maternal grandfather ("Opa") in America. Having always been told that her parents died in an accident, Luisa pursues the truth--and must learn what side of the Cold War her father was, and is, on.

Katherine Reay's THE BERLIN LETTERS begins with a riveting scene ripped from Berlin's headlines in 1961. The way that Reay relates Luisa's final moments with her parents were fascinating, heartbreaking, and made me want to keep reading to find out if they would ever be reunited.

Katherine Reay, perhaps best known as the author of Austen spinoffs DEAR MR. KNIGHTLEY and LIZZY AND JANE, has also written several historical mysteries about the Cold War, including THE LONDON HOUSE and A SHADOW IN MOSCOW. THE BERLIN LETTERS continues that project. After the riveting opening, however, THE BERLIN LETTERS doesn't quite live up to its promise. The action unwinds in the present tense in two time frames, the 1960s and 1980s, and is related by two narrators, Luisa and her father, East German journalist and sometime fervent Communist Joris Voekler. I'm not sure why Reay uses the present tense. This is the third novel written that way but set in the past - in this case, in two different pasts - that I've read in the past month. Once the adult Luisa in 1989 is introduced, the novel promises, inevitably, to build toward's the Wall's fall. To some extent, that teleology dampens the suspense. Still, I wanted to find out if Luisa would reconnect with her father in time, what his loyalties are, and how he attempted to shape history.

As historical fiction, THE BERLIN LETTERS seems a bit on the nose, ripped not from the headlines as much as from Wikipedia. The culture of 1980s America is largely established through references to pop music, movies, and television. This is a resonant choice because all of this culture was banned in East Berlin. Still, it's not the only way, or even the most evocative way, that most of us think of distant living memory. I recall the memes that ask if you had a transparent telephone, know what a slap bracelet is for, or made scrunchies by hand. Those are the kind of ephemera that, alongside music, television, film, and politics, comprise culture.

When Luisa cracks her father's code, she learns that his letters are deeply personal, but also political. He is privy to political secrets and has tried to shape history. His ideological development is emotionally compelling if not exactly unpredictable. Like a lot of denizens of East Berlin, her father is a person of shifting loyalties and messy secrets. And as the clock ticks toward's the regime's end, Luisa has reason to worry about his safety. Once, her family saved her. Can she save one of them?

One thing I did not wonder was how the story would end. The grand finale arrives as foreshadowed. Underwhelmingly, it is described in the abstract. "Words bounce around us like pinballs in a machine." It's not exactly Hugo's busy, exhilarating reconstruction of the Rue de Chanvrerie Barricade.

Still, for readers to young to remember the Wall splitting open and coming down, THE BERLIN LETTERS is an engrossing introduction to an important part of history. If you want to know what it was like to be there, starting with THE BERLIN LETTERS isn't a bad idea.

Rebecca Nesvet co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, March 2024

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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