Confession with Blue Horses
Shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award 2019
by Sophie Hardach
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Pub Date 13 Jun 2019 | Archive Date 31 Jul 2019
Shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award 2019.
Tobi and Ella's childhood in East Berlin is shrouded in mystery. Now adults living in London, their past is full of unanswered questions. Both remember their family's daring and terrifying attempt to escape. But what happened next? Where did their parents disappear to, and why? What happened to Heiko, their little brother? And was there ever a painting of three blue horses?
In contemporary Germany, Aaron works for a Stasi archive, making his way through old files, reconstructing the tragic history of thousands of families. But one file in particular catches his eye; and soon unravelling the secrets at its heart becomes an obsession.
When Ella finds a stash of her mother's notebooks, she and Tobi embark on a search that will take them back to Berlin. Her fate clashes with Aaron's, and they piece together the details of Ella's past... and a family torn apart.
Devastating and beautifully written, funny and life-affirming, Confession with Blue Horses explores intimate family life and its strength in the most difficult of circumstances.
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 7 members
I am drawn to stories set in the divided Germany of the decades after WWII and people’s experiences when reunification began in the 1990s. In this one, Ella’s journey to Berlin to look for her youngest brother, separated from the family as an infant when their attempt to escape over the border went catastrophically wrong, leads her to the Stasi archive. Here she meets an English intern, employed in the task of painstakingly piecing together shredded documents, who helps her to identify people who knew the family in the old days and to discover what happened. It’s a slow process but a fascinating one.
The author introduces several interesting strands of thought and these remind me of Jenny Erpenbeck’s insights in ‘Visitation’ and ‘Go, Went, Gone’, for example the ambivalence of some Germans, in this case Ella’s grandmother, to reunification and how people returning felt like foreigners in their own country (street names changed, whole areas unrecognisable). The idea, too, that uncovering hard facts so long after the event might not be what everyone wants. Is it going to be helpful to rake over old coals and apportion blame? Will Heiko be happy to be found?
A passage that struck me particularly:
‘It was something he had noticed before in East Germans, in the ones who were children when the Berlin wall fell. Nothing surprised them. They seemed to have no expectation of the world being any particular way: they knew that anything could happen, and when it did, they simply adjusted to it. He found it a slightly unsettling but somehow admirable quality, this absence of surprise. It made you realise how naive you were to take the current state of things for granted, to think you knew what might happen next, to be taken aback when things turned out differently.’
Much food for thought here. I enjoyed this book very much, both the story and the characters. High quality writing and a well-measured, non-judgemental view on people’s behaviour during really quite recent events. I’ve no hesitation in recommending it.