Stasi Child | David Young | ebook: 2015, Pb: 2016 | Twenty7 | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1974 and Berlin is a city divided. The risk that some are prepared to take to flee from East to West is well-known – and not just the risk to themselves but also to their families by association – and so it is a surprise to say the least when Oberleutenant Karin Müller and her deputy Werner Tilsner are called out one wintry night to take charge of the body of a young girl, killed while running not from East to West but from West to East. Müller and Tilsner work for the East German criminal police but it’s not unexpected when Klaus Jäger, a high-ranking officer from the state police, the infamous Stasi, takes charge of the case, especially when car tracks at the scene suggest that an official vehicle might have been involved. Further evidence suggests that this murder scene is not at all as it first appeared. As Jäger’s icey grip on the case tightens, Müller is left in such a precarious position that, in order to help find justice for the murdered girl, little more than a child, she must endanger far more than her career.
This is a cold, cold world into which we are immersed. It’s a bitterly chilly winter but the ice goes deeper. Karin’s marriage is in trouble, not helped by her attraction to her deputy, a charmer if ever there was one, but whereas Karin works for the authorities and believes in the ideology of her country, her husband does not. In fact, he’s had reason to hate it. He’s not shared any of this with his wife, just as she has carried on independently with her own life, but Karin has need to relearn her relationship with him, to get to know him again, the man he has become once the state had worked its harm.
The story alternates between two stories – Karin’s investigation (as well as her relationship with her husband) and the first-hand account of Irma, a teenage girl trapped in a reform school in an isolated and especially cold part of East Germany. Chillingly, the building was once a holiday complex built by Hitler. Irma’s story presents a further harrowing side to the dystopian nightmare of the DDR and adds an urgency to Karin’s investigations as the two narratives wind their way together.
Stasi Child is a deeply atmospheric and haunting read. The oppression of the state lies heavily over the characters and over the whole novel. With no doubt at all, this is such a fascinating time and there is an undeniable thrill in reading about the Wall (otherwise known as the Anti-Fascist Barrier) and its checkpoints, with the lure of the West just metres away. I love Berlin and it’s a fabulous place to explore. This book made me want to head straight back to it. Stasi Child captures the mood of the time, place and ideology brilliantly. It also brings to the fore the sadness and melancholy – the drabness and despair – that some endured during these days. Until some of them could endure it no longer.
The mystery is such a good one and there is plenty of suspense and tension as events unfold. But this is mixed with a fair amount of tragedy, making it a thoughtful read as well as a gripping one. The characters of Karin, Irma and Karin’s husband are especially well drawn. It’s hard not to suffer with them, or worry for them, and that makes some sections of the novel painful, brutal, but all the more rewarding.
I love a novel that evokes so well a lost time and place, especially when mixing it up with an intriguing plot and strong characters. Perfect, really. The fact that Stasi Child is a debut novel makes it all the more remarkable. I really hope Karin Müller returns, and in the not too distant future.