Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Review of Potsdam Station by David Downing (2011, Old Street Publishing)

It’s April 1945 and three and a half years since American journalist, John Russell, fled Berlin to Sweden aided by a communist cell, leaving his partner, actress Effi Koenen, and teenage son, Paul, behind.  Russian troops are poised to take the city and Russell wants enter with them to find and protect Effi and Paul from the marauding victors, assuming they are still alive.  He travels to Moscow to try and persuade the authorities that they would benefit from a Western journalist accompanying them.  They initially decline, arresting him as a spy, but then decide to give Russell his wish as long as he carries out a mission for them - parachuting  into the edge of the devastated city with a scientist, and two NKVD minders, tasked with searching for papers related to the German atomic programme.  After surviving for so long under an assumed identity, Effi and the young orphan she’s been caring for, are hoping to see out the war, but the Gestapo seem intent on annihilating all enemies of the state before they are overthrown.  Meanwhile, Paul is fighting a desperate rear-guard action as part of the chaotic retreat to Berlin.  At eighteen he’s thoroughly disillusioned, but also desperate to avoid pointlessly sacrificing himself for a regime he despises.  Russell is not sure how he is going to locate them, especially given the bargain he’s entered into, but he feels compelled to search through the ruins and risk the desperate fighting.

The fourth book in the John Russell/Effi Koenen series, Potsdam Station is told through three points of view: Russell, Effi and Paul, Russell’s son from his first marriage.  Each new scene switches to focus on one of three.  The result is three different views on the fall of Berlin from the perspective of foreign journalist, surviving citizen, and retreating soldier.  This is one of the strengths of the tale, along with engaging prose, nice characterisation, a very vivid sense of place and geography, interesting historic detail, a cloying atmosphere, and a visceral sense of desperation as a regime collapses under a fierce onslaught.  Nonetheless, the plot is a little far-fetched, particularly the scenario of Russell persuading the Russians to get him into the city ahead of their arrival and Effi failing to maintain her cover to the final fall.  That said, despite having a pretty good sense of how the tale would end, Downing keeps the tension high throughout.  Further, the first two books in the series were set in 1939 and the third in 1941 and in some ways it’s a shame that Downing has decided to jump forward three and a half years to 1945 for the fourth as I’m sure a compelling tale could have been inserted in that timeframe.  Overall, an interesting and entertaining read, with a main plot that’s a little fanciful but a narrative that’s compelling.

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