Confession with Blue Horses…
About the Book:
Set in Berlin during the dying days of communism, this is an exploration of a family cruelly torn apart, and the consequences that seep through generations.
Tobi and Ella’s childhood in East Berlin is shrouded in mystery. Now adults living in London, their past in full of unanswered questions. Both remember their family’s daring and terrifying attempt to escape, which ended in tragedy; but the fall-out from that single event remains elusive. 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 the archive, making his way through old files, piecing together 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 is left a stash of notebooks by her mother, and she and Tobi embark on a search that will take them back to Berlin, her fate clashes with Aaron’s, and together they piece together the details of Ella’s past… and a family destroyed. 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.
Confession with Blue Horses is a rather magnificent novel that I enjoyed every moment of. It had me spellbound right from the beginning through to the end. Predominantly, this is a story about a family torn apart, but it also intimately explores what it was like to grow up in Berlin under the shadow of the Berlin Wall: that constant looming presence, the separation of families and friends, where life on one side was so vastly different to life on the other. This is the first novel I have read which has actually explored these concepts within this setting and I really liked the way the author looked at it from so many dimensions.
We have our main character, Ella, in 2010 with her brother Toby, both living in London. They moved to London after the fall of the Berlin Wall with their mother, but prior to the wall being taken down, they had for several years been living on the eastern side with their grandparents, while their mother was on the western side. She was a political prisoner that had been ‘bought out’ by west Berlin a couple of years into her sentence. Their father had been shot in the same failed escape that had resulted in their mother’s arrest. There is just so much that you can pull apart with this novel and really examine – it is filled with so much, yet has a distinct absence of clutter; a novel executed with such finesse and literary control.
‘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 naïve 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.’
Ella decides to return to Berlin after receiving a package containing some journals and art books that belonged to her mother. Bundled up with these things is an official letter regarding her mother’s enquiry into her own Stasi file. This instantly makes Ella interested in pursuing this line of enquiry further because she has a third brother, a younger one, who was taken from them when her mother was imprisoned as a political prisoner. Despite searching for years, her mother was never able to get very far in terms of locating him. These forced adoptions were rather common throughout the GDR, but after the fall of the wall, what had happened to these children was an aspect that was overlooked, so families remained without any knowledge of where their children had ended up. Ella feels compelled to follow this lead, that maybe by accessing her mother’s file; she might be able to trace her brother, whom she has not seen since he was an infant. Ella herself has not gone back to Berlin since she left after the wall collapsed and it was interesting to see her re-familiarise herself with a place that was so changed from when she had lived there, but still retaining familiar elements of the life that she remembered.
Our other main character is Aaron, who is doing an internship over in Berlin in what is supposed to be the Stasi Archives. I found this aspect of the story utterly fascinating. All of the efforts that were in place to recreate files and history. Literally bags of shredded documents where the ribbons and shreds were being pieced back together to create entire documents, the matching of words, fonts and paper. The work was incredibly meticulous and there was not a lot of room for error. It really pulled me up, physically, to contemplate this. The whole idea of people accessing files on themselves, trying to fill the holes of their own history; it is completely heartbreaking. Moreover, for many, the destruction of files went beyond shredding, so there would be no possibility of recovering that information. Aaron was taking his job very seriously, but he was also possessed with a need to make something right for someone through the course of this work. When his path crossed with Ella’s, it became a bit of a thing for him to try to give Ella information, even some closure, about her mother and the possible whereabouts of her younger brother, via the piecing together of her mother’s Stasi file.
‘She had been spied on, and she had spied on others. I believed that she had forgotten her brief affair with the Stasi as a young woman, because a human life is very long and many memories vanish along the way, especially the more inconvenient ones.’
The novel unfolds from three angles of perspective. We have Ella as an adult in Berlin following the footsteps of her past, trying to piece together what happened to her mother, why her mother even had a Stasi file, and how this could possibly be linked to the current whereabouts of her brother. Her other brother, Toby, keeps himself very distant from the entire proceedings, preferring to just experience it all second-hand via Ella. Then we have Aaron, who is there working away at the archives, learning a lot about what life was like when the Berlin Wall was up, the sort of things people endured at the hands of the Stasi; there is a lot of confronting stuff that he unearths as he slowly pieces together the information available, shred by shred. Alongside all of this, we are revisiting Ella’s childhood, the particular period during the late 80s when her life as she knew it imploded.
‘The future had always seemed limitless to me, an empty space to be filled by life. But it was not like that. It had already been filled in for me by others. Others had decided that I would cross this meadow, others had decided that I would walk through this forest, others had decided that I would live in West Germany. Their ideas were my reality. It was like everything else in my life – school, clubs, homework, chores, falling asleep at night, waking up in the morning. It was all arranged by others. I had no power at all – not over the present, not over the future.’
I mentioned earlier but it begs repeating, one thing I really admire about the author concerning this novel was the multifaceted view that she offered. We have Ella’s grandmother, who is a socialist, believing wholeheartedly in what was trying to be achieved in the GDR by the Socialist Party. Whereas, her daughter believed the opposite, craving freedom so much she was willing to sacrifice everything to obtain it. Moreover, of course there is Ella as a child in East Berlin. I really felt this novel tapped into what it must be like for so many Berliners who grew up in the 1980s under the shadow of the Berlin Wall and then with it coming down and communism being dismantled; it’s such a different life to what I have experienced and this weighed heavily on me throughout. The whole idea that you could have been a spy whilst also being spied upon; what a web of deceit that was being passed off as a natural way of living. The effects of this sort of life was conveyed well through the characters of Ella and even Toby. I had such mixed feelings as well, being angry with Ella’s parents for even attempting to escape, putting their family into such peril, and yet I could completely understand why they got to that point and why they felt they needed to make a break for it. ‘Survive? I don’t just want to survive, Mutti. I want to live.’ It’s novels like this that really make you appreciate so much about the freedom we take for granted in western countries. It is also very eye-opening in terms of beginning to understand the legacy of what this type of existence leaves within a place, just as much as within its people.
‘It must be because we’re talking in English, I thought. The words ‘interrogation’, ‘prison’ and ‘surveillance’ were just tabs in a folder; they referred to objects and experiences without actually evoking them. They had no power over me, they were lifeless. Whereas the German equivalents, especially the terms that would have been used in East Germany – Vernehmung, Haft, Überwachung – grabbed me by the throat. I heard them, or even thought them, and was in a damp cellar, barbed wire hanging over my head, an unseen thing crouching in the corner. Darkness, rustling leaves, the sound of my own breath, and then a sudden light.’
I really loved the title of this novel and its origins. The significance of the title becomes apparent as the novel progresses and it is intimately tied to a photograph of a painting of three blue horses that Ella finds pressed in between the pages of an art book belonging to her mother. There is a little story that Ella’s mother would tell them about the three blue horses, but of course, there is more to the painting than a made up story. Of far greater significance, is the original painting of the blue horses within the context of a confession, reiterating just how perfect a title this is. I did find that this was a very life-affirming novel, such an important ode to family and love, about so many things that so many of us take for granted. I would really like to visit Berlin one day and just walk the streets, have a look around and really see and contemplate the legacy of the Berlin Wall. I do highly recommend Confession with Blue Horses. It is an outstanding novel, absolutely brilliant literature and it is definitely going on my list of best books for the year.
‘The blue horses were standing on a meadow dotted with wildflowers. To the right was a corn field, tall stalks swaying in the breeze. At the back, towards the horizon, loomed a dense forest. It was the meadow, and the forest. It was the place where we had tried to cross. Sven must have discovered the meadow during one of his painting trips to Hungary. A quiet area without a watch tower in sight, without a border guard. He had painted it, and months later he had gone back, crossed the meadow and climbed through the barbed wire.’
Thanks is extended to HarperCollins Publishers Australia for providing me with a copy via NetGalley of Confession with Blue Horses for review.
About the Author:
Sophie Hardach is the author of two novels, The Registrar’s Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages, about Kurdish refugees, and Of Love and Other Wars, about pacifists during World War Two. Also a journalist, she worked as a correspondent for Reuters news agency in Tokyo, Paris and Milan and has written for a number of publications including the Atlantic, the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph.
Confession with Blue Horses
Published by HarperCollins Publishers Australia (Head of Zeus – GB)
Released on 17th June 2019