Michelle Barker’s new novel is set in 1980s German Democratic Republic. After losing both her parents in an industrial accident, Lena Altmann is committed to a mental institution to “get well.” Upon her release, she’s sent to live in East Berlin with her “Sausage Auntie” (a member of the Communist Party). Lena spends her nights cleaning the headquarters of the secret police. As bad as that seems, at least Lena can use her proximity to Stasi records to search for information on her uncle Erich, who before the accident was a close and inspiring figure in her life. He “knew what it was like to make up places in his head and live in them as if they were real” – a talent Lena wouldn’t mind tapping into.
As she undertakes an investigation into Erich’s disappearance, Lena maintains an inner dialogue with an ideal, more wilful self that constantly calls her “Mausi.” She scurries about trying to keep out of sight of the informers who could turn her in. Assured by the state, the department of records, and even her aunt that she has never had an uncle, Lena nevertheless probes deeper into the workings of the GDR with suspenseful results.
The bleakness of Lena’s daily existence is beautifully rendered. Barker’s own mother escaped from the GDR in the 1950s, and that familial connection, along with the author’s attention to detail, contributes to creating a moving and insightful novel about growing up in the Soviet sector of Berlin. Despite the constant fear that the state may apprehend her, Lena forges connections with her uncle; with Jutta, her cleaning partner; and ultimately with Max, a handsome young actor who spurs her to push beyond her “Mausi” limits.
Barker gives a captivating account of the isolation of East Berlin. “The Wall: it was all in how you thought of it. It hadn’t been built to stop citizens from leaving the Better Germany; it was there to keep the capitalists and the class enemies from getting in. It was a form of protection. It wasn’t even called a Wall, not in front of the authorities. It was the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart.”
While the subject matter is heady at times, Barker handles it with a straightforward tone and does not sugar-coat the trials and tribulations a 17-year-old girl might confront. Lena’s struggles do not make for a happy story but rather a very real one.