Review: Confession with Blue Horses – Sophie Hardach

Confession with Blue Horses, by Sophie Hardach is a beautiful novel, set in East Berlin in the 1980s. As soon as I heard a recommendation that anyone who loved the book Alone in Berlin or the film The Lives of Others should read it, I knew it was one for me! I don’t typically read a huge amount of historical fiction, but this fascinating and troubled period for Germany during the Second World War and then the Cold War is definitely a time in history I am interested in learning more about. Confessions with Blue Horses tells the story of Ella and Tobi, who spent their childhood in East Berlin, and now live in London as adults. Early on in the book, they discover their mother’s old notebooks, which lead them back through their mother’s memories, and their own – compelling Ella to make a trip back to Berlin, to uncover the truth about their past and how their family was torn apart.

In current day Berlin, Aaron is interning for an archive for the Records of the State Security Service. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Stasi tried to destroy the masses of surveillance documents they had kept on West German citizens. As an intern at the archive, Aaron’s job is to piece together the salvaged shredded pieces of these files. The documents are bundled in long strips of shredded paper, and the best way to tackle the challenge of recreating the files is to treat it like a puzzle – start with the edges, look out for corner pieces and start to form the most obvious sections first.

This is also an apt description for the narrative form of Confession with Blue Horses. The story is told through first person accounts both Ella and and Arron, and also moves between both present day and Ella’s memories of her childhood. At the beginning, the memories Ella recounts are centered around key events, such as the hugely significant moment her family attempt to escape East Berlin, and symbolic sounds and sights from her childhood, including a painting of three blue horses that hung in their West Berlin flat. Throughout the novel, as she walks the streets of Berlin and discovers the deep secrets within the archive, Ella begin to uncover deeper memories. Like the unraveling and piecing together of the shredded documents, strip by strip, the truth is revealed and the full story begins to come into focus. This structure makes for a very compelling read, as we follow the clues and routes of investigation along with Ella. It also cleverly explores the themes of memory and history: how they contradict and connect with each other, intertwining to shape the past.

Berlin, too, is seeped in this blend of memory and history. It is shown as a vibrant city, which is both living in the ‘now’ but also coloured by pervading remnants of the past: through its physical landscape, its citizens and deep in the character of the city. Although Ella grew up in this city, the streets of post-Cold War Berlin are both familiar and unfamiliar to her, and she needs to buy a new map to orientate herself. Aaron finds it strange to realise that the archive employs a number of ex-Stasi, who are referred to by others as ‘the elephants’. By showing me these layers which all coexist to make up this fascinating city, Hardach took me right to the heart of Berlin with this novel.

In these ways, I found this novel provided a fresh approach to historical fiction – we see not just what happened in a particular time in history, but also how these events have affected both the people and places that experienced them. How can we come out the other side, to go on to live meaningful lives? I also felt that the novel showed me a nuanced and balanced view of this time in history; as well as the terrible realities of living in a surveillance state, we hear from a variety of perspectives, including Ella and Tobi’s Grandmother, Oma Trude who believes in the Communist persuit and even from two ex-Stasi guards.  It is also an extremely beautifully written novel, full of nostalgic memories of childhood, family, and tenderness, with the central image of a painting of three blue horses haunting the pages. Overall this made for a very balanced and beautiful book, which I definitely recommend.

Confession with Blue Horses by Sophie Hardach was published earlier this year by Head of Zeus. Many thanks to Helen Richardson and the Publisher for a proof copy, in exchange for an honest review.

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