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I borrowed West of the Wall by Marcia Preston from our local library, after reading a review on Dooyoo, which inspired me to seek it out. I have always been fascinated by Eastern Europe and this novel is set in Berlin, just after the Wall divides the East and West. I spent three weeks in East Berlin in 1989, just a few months before the Wall came down, so I was looking forward to immersing myself in the 1960s and to get a feeling of life then in this city.
The novel began really well. I was soon caught up in the absorbing story. It centres on a woman called Trudy Hulst, who is the wife of a political activist called Rolf and the mother of a young son called Stefan. Rolf soon has to escape to the West as he is in fear of his life, so Trudi is left in the East with her son and her ageing mother-in-law Gisela.
It is not long before Trudy has to leave the East too, after Wolfgang Kruger (their friend from University and now a member of the Volkspolizei) warns her she will soon be interrogated, to see what she knows about Rolf's work helping East Berliners to escape to the West. Sadly, she is forced to leave little Stefan behind, as the escape to the West is a difficult and dangerous one. The story concentrates on her quest to reunite her family and be able to live with her son again.
The first part of the novel is excellent, a real page-turner written with great style and characterisation. You can really picture the people well and empathise with their situation. I also felt life in the East was described in a believable way, with the often harsh living conditions and the threat of the Stasi.
You follow Trudy's daily life and this was fascinating and well-written. The character of Gisela is excellent too and even Stefan is developed beautifully, which is not an easy task, as it can be very hard to enable the reader to relate to a baby or toddler who can't express themselves with words. As a mother, I felt it easy to relate to Trudy and Gisela and became emotionally attached to their little family unit early on in the novel.
I also liked the selective use of German words and phrases throughout. These fit in nicely, aren't too complicated and really add to the flavour, reminding you of the setting.
The second part of the novel moves to the Unites States as its backdrop and I felt this section didn't work so well. It all became a bit exaggerated and occasionally slipped from drama to thriller, making me wonder if it was a different novel at times. The events being set in 1963 also meant you had an inkling of what was coming, with the Kennedys becoming involved in the plot.
There are some very good characters in this part - especially Sandra and Max - but they are pretty much forgotten, once the novel moves into the third part and the action shifts back to Germany. Overall, the American section seemed to be a huge filler in my opinion and my least favourite aspect of the book.
The final section becomes quite exciting at times and there are enough twists and turns to hold your interest. It manages to stay the right side of predictability and I was satisfied with the ending too.
Despite the weak middle section, I did enjoy the novel overall and would rate it around 7.5 out of 10, but it left me feeling rather disappointed as the first part showed so much promise and I was expecting something amazing from the rest. Sadly, it didn't deliver. West of the Wall is worth a read if you are interested in the story, as I was, but it's not brilliant.