There is a striking conversation towards the end of Sophie Hardach’s Costa-shortlisted novel, Confession with Blue Horses. ‘History,’ says one character, ‘is written by adults.’ An obvious statement, perhaps, but all the more poignant when you really think about it. Because history is written by adults – not just in that they are the ones who compose the textbooks or hand down the memories, but in that they tell children how to perceive events even as they are experiencing them. In the powerlessness that comes with youth (whether through innocent incomprehension or the deliberate withholding of information by their elders), children are all too often victims in the creation of history.
Confession with Blue Horses, a novel about history, family and memory, seems in many ways to be an attempt to redress this injustice. At its heart are three children – siblings Ella, Tobi and Heiko – whom we encounter at different stages of their lives and who are all, in one way or another, victims of history. Heiko, who remains frozen in time as the memory of a two-year-old, was taken into care and lost to his birth family after his parents tried and failed to escape the GDR. Tobi, who appears only as a boy in Ella’s memories or an adult voice on the end of the telephone, has assimilated so well into his new life in London that he has become almost past-less – a not-quite-Englishman who has little connection to the country, culture or language of his birth. And then there is Ella, the novel’s main protagonist, who is plagued by guilt and half-memories of a childhood that was idyllic, then confusing, and now viewed painfully through the veil of adulthood.
The reader cannot help but come to the novel with the benefit of hindsight, meaning that on first glance we probably sympathise with Ella’s parents’ political frustration and desire to escape the iron fist of communist rule. Present-day scenes featuring Aaron, who is completing a summer internship in the (fictitious) Stasi archive in Berlin, only add to this feeling. After all, how could a regime that so mercilessly spied on, imprisoned, interrogated and tortured its citizens not have been worth even attempting to escape from? Yet as the novel progresses, we come to know East Berlin through Ella’s eyes, in which it is a place of magic rather than menace. Bathtubs are hidden in kitchen cupboards, shopping lists are written in rhyme, and the looming presence of the Berlin Wall is more of an intriguing mystery than a cause for concern. And over it all, a presence of almighty benevolence, watches Oma, Ella’s beloved grandmother.
Although not one of the novel’s main characters, Ella’s grandmother took on a role of enormous significance for me. A survivor of Buchenwald and a staunch supporter of communism, she is described by one adult visitor as ‘Stalin in a housecoat’. As fiercely competent as she is loving, she is an almost mythical figure for her granddaughter and, by extension, the reader – the one constant in Ella’s childhood narrative until that fateful day in November 1989. While the rest of the world celebrates, Oma’s world crumbles along with the Wall, and it was because of Hardach’s powerful portrayal of her that I could feel Ella’s resulting distress and disorientation. This ending of the known world is played out in several scenes, including one of the most moving of the entire novel. Makeshift or wooden toys, previously loved and played with, begin to pile up in the streets of East Berlin, spurned instantly in favour of the bright, shiny playthings now freely available in the West.
Such tableaus are typical of Hardach, who has an excellent eye for detail and clearly researched the historical elements of her novel with immense care in order to bring East Berlin to life. The title of this review also aims to reflect this, taken from a scene in which Aaron reassures Ella that the little details of life through which she remembers her brother – like a pair of socks hanging on a radiator – are not anything to feel ashamed of, but rather a significant element of human memory. It is easy to agree with what Hardach is saying: that our individual lives are not founded solely on the great political events of our times, but rather on a series of small, intimate, day-to-day moments.
It was all the more disappointing, then, that I found the present-day scenes, set in 2010, utterly incapable of holding their own against the scenes of the late 1980s. I’d like to think that this was done on purpose – the longer Ella remains entrapped by the vivid past, the more detached she is from her present life – but the fact that the problem also occurred in Aaron’s sections of narrative made me think it can’t be so. A lot of the time, modern-day Berlin seemed like a caricature of itself, far too full of hipsters and off-the-wall nightlife to be a convincing place. Yes, Berlin is famed for these things, but this too stereotypical portrayal seemed jarring in comparison with the meticulous authenticity of Hardach’s 1980s version and I often found myself disengaging.
Aside from this, Confession with Blue Horses is without doubt a highly enjoyable read – when sifting for adjectives to describe it, I alighted almost immediately upon the criterion essential to any Costa Award listing. Skilfully written, with just enough mystery to drive the plot and a vivid sense of historical setting, it kept me hanging on emotionally without requiring me to become too invested. I learned quite a bit about the Stasi and life in East Berlin – a period I find fascinating – and the novel raised several questions about family relationships, memory, loss, redemption and guilt.
At the same time, I couldn’t help but feeling that it is maybe too flimsy a vehicle for some of the bigger themes it touches on. Perhaps the legacy of the Stasi and what happened to the lost children of dissenting East Berlin families is too large or too painful to be done justice to in a novel, but isn’t fiction a lens through which we can confront almost anything? Confession with Blue Horses is a valiant and credible attempt to tackle this tough subject matter, but it ended up falling slightly short of what I hoped it would be. By all means a book worth reading, but one that is enjoyable without being exceptional.
My rating: 3.5/5