Growing up as the only child of the only communist in the Midlands town of Tamworth, Jess has felt like she’s ‘different’ all her life. When her mother, Eleanor, gets the opportunity to spend time in East Germany over the summers, her and Jess jump at the chance. Living in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), they begin to feel like they’ve found a place where they finally fit in.
While in Tamworth, Eleanor was the butt of every joke, in East Germany she is valued and appreciated. When they meet Peter, a widower, and his daughter Martina through the party, it seems like the final pieces might be starting to fall into place. But it soon clear that the Party comes first, and personal relationships that don’t meet with approval from the top are forced to come second.
Jess is the main character – we see through her eyes and are heavily influenced by her views. Despite this, the character that I emphasised the most with was Eleanor. She clearly has incredibly strong beliefs and a tireless commitment to a cause that she believes in completely – even when she’s spit on, ground down and disappointed. Her steadfast commitment to her values doesn’t even waver when her chance at true love is whisked away by the party. I admire her for sticking to her convictions through thick and thin, but can’t help but think that she’s choosing a life that doesn’t necessarily lead to her being very happy.
Jess is also a great character – she’s observant and witty – and as a result of her mother’s strength of faith in communism, she a true believer herself. The negative attention that’s come her way over the course of her life, the only time she’s ever really able to feel her true self is when she spends her summers in East Germany. But if soon becomes clear that the party might not be all she thought it was.
Martina gave a really interesting insight into what life was like for young people growing up on the other side of the Berlin Wall. Despite her fleeting presence throughout the book, she acts as a constant reminder that there is a darker side to every story, and that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. While Jess is dreaming of defecting and running away to live in the GDR, Martina is quick to remind her that she, as a British citizen, has a freedom that she doesn’t have. She longs to travel beyond the Eastern Bloc and to see England, but as a GDR citizen at this time, this simple dream isn’t something that she could possibly dream of achieving.
I did enjoy reading this novel, but for me it felt like there was something missing. Since then, I’ve discovered that it was originally intended to be a work on non-fiction, based on the author’s real life experiences. I think that some traces of this are still evident in the finished novel. I wasn’t sure what the core messages were that the author wanted us to take away – and I also think it may have needed a little something extra to make it a bit more exciting. That said, the author goes into huge detail about the intricacies of life on the other side of the fence during the Cold War, and it gave a really fascinating insight into an area of history that I’m ashamed to say that I know relatively little about.