The Berlin we know today is not the city of this story set in 1967. The Wall separates East from West Berlin and escape from the East is fraught with danger and for many, death. Life behind the Wall is a dangerous existence with the dreaded secret police, the Stasi, inducing many to spy on their neighbours. Harry, a teenage American has arrived with his parents to live in West Berlin where his father now works. Harry’s first introduction to the Wall is the shooting of a boy trying to escape. The story tells, in alternate chapters, the relationship between Harry and Jakob, an East German teenager living with adopted parents, a relationship which starts with postcards attached to a balloon which floats over the Wall. Quickly it escalates into a plot to escape through a tunnel and Harry crossing into East Berlin to try to help.
The book is actually written by three people under the name of Maximillian Jones, and certainly at the start Harry’s voice is written in short staccato sentences, whereas Jakob’s story flows more easily. Gradually however, Harry’s and Jakob’s chapters merge so it is sometimes not easy to ascertain which boy is the narrator. Whether this is deliberate or not is difficult to say, but the first chapter with its shocking killing does give the reader the feeling of a young man totally out of his depth in a strange land, unable to speak the language and whose parents seem to be drifting apart. The merging of styles sets the tone as it brings the two boys closer until they meet. It is at times a very bleak story, which ends with considerable violence and terror.
The reader does not get much sense of what it was like to live in West Berlin, which is a pity as the contrast between the two cities would have helped, and would Harry, who seemed a gregarious sort of boy, really have been so alone in an expatriate school? The events set in East Berlin however, do give the reader a proper understanding of what it must have been like to live in such a time and place. Hans, Jakob’s ‘father’, works at a high level in the Stasi and the fear he engenders in Jakob is clear to see. There are one or two places where the reader’s credibility is stretched, for example, Harry seems to know a great deal about recording equipment and for someone with very little German his codebreaking skills are impressive. There are many American references in the first few chapters about Harry which might confuse British readers, for example, ground beef, but most of these will be skipped over in the excitement of a very good story. A sequel is already announced.