Friday, September 4, 2009

Review of Zoo Station by David Downing, Old Street Publishing (2007)

New Year’s eve 1939, the Nazis are ratcheting up the political pressure on their Polish and Czechoslovakia neighbours, and John Russell a freelance English journalist living in Berlin, is in a Danzig bar. When he returns to his hotel a Russian, who’d he’d last seen in 1924, is waiting for him with a proposition – to write pro-Nazi articles for Russian newspapers whilst simultaneously spying for them. Tired and frustrated with the Nazi regime he agrees, heading back to Berlin to his actress girlfriend and his son from his first marriage to a former German communist. Whilst researching and writing his stories he starts to teach English to the daughters of a Jewish couple who still hope to gain visas to travel to Britain, and is drawn into the story of his American journalist neighbour who has heard about a new, secret law to exterminate disabled people and then mysteriously commits suicide. Soon the Gestapo and British intelligence are also asking him for favours. All Russell wants to do is keep his head down and stay in Germany so he can remain with his loved ones; but he also wants to avenge the American’s death, save the Weisner family and undermine the Nazi regime in whatever way he can. Soon he’s criss-crossing Europe, sourcing and couriering dangerous information, hoping that everything works out as he hopes.

‘So what are you here for?’
‘Ah.’ Shchepkin hitched his trouser leg again. ‘I am here to offer you work.’

Russell raised an eyebrow. ‘You? Who exactly do you represent?’

The Russian shrugged. ‘
My country. The Writer’s Union. It doesn’t matter. You will be working for us. You know who we are.’
‘No,’ Russell said. ‘I mean, no I’m not interested. I …’

‘Don’t be so hasty,’ Shchepkin said. ‘Hear me out. We aren’t asking you to do anything which your German hosts could object to.’ The Russian allowed himself a smile. ‘Let me tell you exactly what we have in mind. We want a series of articles about the positive aspects of the Nazi regime.’

I enjoyed Zoo Station without being bowled over by it. It’s an interesting story, competently told, with care and attention given to the historical context but lacking in high drama (despite all the potential, I was never 'on the edge of my seat'). The characterization is okay; the people populating the story are in the main ordinary folk trying to get by and the result is that they’re generally not very memorable. John Russell is a reluctant hero; he’s got no quirks or odd traits and he’s polite and sensible in dress and action. The pacing was fairly even until the end where it sped up. It would have been better I think to keep it even to the conclusion, using the plot to try and crank up the tension rather than the pace. Instead the ending feels hurried and a little ragged. The American journalist part of the story simply dropped from the plot after a while, pulled back in at the end but not very effectively and without revealing its resolution (in terms of the newspaper story or the source of the information). Overall, an interesting first novel and I’ll probably pick up the next book in the series to see how Russell gets on as an English man in Germany as war breaks out.

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