Wednesday, November 19, 2008

City of Shadows by Ariana Franklin

A fellow bibliophile sent me her copy of Ariana Franklin's City of Shadows. I picked it up off the cuff; the snippet on the back got my attention. As a historian of modern Europe, I enjoy reading fictional accounts of historical events. It is interesting to see how an author portrays famous moments through the eyes of individual characters. Once in a while I find myself frustrated at the historical inconsistencies in a novel, but in general I do not read fiction looking for a recreation of reality.

In that vein, Franklin has done an incredible job portraying interwar Berlin. Her story takes place in 1923, at the height of the German hyper-inflation and then in 1933 in the days preceding Hitler's election as Chancellor of Germany. The sense of realism that she describes as her characters walk through the streets, selling their personal belongings to buy food is really intriguing. I found myself tremendously invested in the lives of these characters. In the second half of the novel I held my breath knowing what was coming. Willing the characters to understand that despite their protestations, Hitler was going to come to power and destroy everything that they believed in. Franklin did an excellent job imbuing her story with the tensions of 1920s and 30s Berlin.

The story revolves around the... underworld, I suppose, of Berlin. The main character is a young Russian Jewish woman who works for a Russian shyster who owns nightclubs in Berlin. One of his clubs caters to homosexuals and the subplot revolves around this particular world. The one comment that I have about Franklin's story is that she gives the perception that homosexuality and cross-dressing were prevalent in this era. While it is true that this world did exist, it was a very small minority and did not have the public presence that I think she gives in her book. Nonetheless, she deals with the topic well and creates a fascinating world in which to place her novel.

Interestingly, my mom just finished this book as well - a total coincidence. When I mentioned the book she said, "Have you figured it out yet? There's a big hint at the beginning." At that point, I was reading purely for enjoyment. It had not occurred to me that there was a mystery to figure out. But, as soon as I thought for half a minute, I knew the answer. The big shock at the end of the book - yeah, not so shocking if you're looking for it.

All in all, a good read. I won't say light as it gets a bit heavy what with Nazis, homosexuals, and Russian pogroms. But an engaging read.

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