REVIEW: The Berlin Letters by Katherine Reay

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From the time she was a young girl, Luisa Voekler has loved solving puzzles and cracking codes. Brilliant and logical, she’s expected to quickly climb the career ladder at the CIA. But while her coworkers have moved on to thrilling Cold War assignments—especially in the exhilarating era of the late 1980s—Luisa’s work remains stuck in the past decoding messages from World War II.

Journalist Haris Voekler grew up a proud East Berliner. But as his eyes open to the realities of postwar East Germany, he realizes that the Soviet promises of a better future are not coming to fruition. After the Berlin Wall goes up, Haris finds himself separated from his young daughter and all alone after his wife dies. There’s only one way to reach his family—by sending coded letters to his father-in-law who lives on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

When Luisa Voekler discovers a secret cache of letters written by the father she has long presumed dead, she learns the truth about her grandfather’s work, her father’s identity, and why she has never progressed in her career. With little more than a rudimentary plan and hope, she journeys to Berlin and risks everything to free her father and get him out of East Berlin alive.

As Luisa and Haris take turns telling their stories, events speed toward one of the twentieth century’s most dramatic moments—the fall of the Berlin Wall and that night’s promise of freedom, truth, and reconciliation for those who lived, for twenty-eight years, behind the bleak shadow of the Iron Curtain’s most iconic symbol.

Dear Ms. Reay,

I remember growing up in a world with an East Germany and a West Germany, an East Berlin and a West Berlin – divided by a wall I thought would never come down in my lifetime. Then I remember watching over some weeks as the Iron Curtain disintegrated which was then followed quickly by thousands of joyous West Berliners as they danced on the remains of the wall and welcomed East Berliners over. All of which made me want to read this book once I’d read the blurb.

This is a book that I read very quickly. It’s propulsive and takes readers from the unbelievable morning after the wall went up with no warning through to when it became irrelevant. Told in first person chapters by Louisa (covering a brief week in time in 1989) and her father Haris (from 1961 through 1989), we get a glimpse into how people living in East Berlin survived the restrictions and snitches which might lead to a message to appear before the Stasi. Who could you trust and what did you dare say?

But the events that start the book, and some that preceded it, still have long term effects on some of the characters. Louisa’s family survived the war and her mother and grandmother were there when the Soviet Army swept through eastern Germany in 1945. Louisa has heard of the repression and danger of that era but it’s only when she discovers what has been going on between her Opa and her father that she truly sees how much her Oma’s memories still terrorize her. War orphaned child Haris initially viewed the Soviets as saviors which drives his acceptance of and enthusiasm for the utopian world promised by communism. It takes years of reality to change his opinion and drive him, as a journalist, to speak the truth in the only way he can.

I will be honest and say that I enjoyed reading the sections by Haris about life in East Berlin more. The gray, hazy world and the threats that everyone lived under felt more immediate and visceral. Louisa initially impressed me with her code breaking skills both at work and with the letters she finds. But once she decides to save her father, as another reviewer says, I can see why she would have been pulled from operative CIA training – even if ostensibly her lack of skills were not the reason that was done. Louisa heads into danger with a laughable plan and then proceeds to muck even that up. Had she tried to pull off what she did a day earlier – let’s just say things would not have gone well for her. I inhaled this whole section, but I was shaking my head at it, too.

The HEA seems a little sugar coated and rushed. There are parts of it

that were frankly unbelievable. One thing I noted was how so many of the East Berlin characters stated that they didn’t want to leave their city. Instead they wanted it to be free and were fearless in trying to achieve that. After finishing the book I watched a few youtube videos that took me back to those heady days and am still thrilled that what I never thought I’d see, I saw. B-


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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 25 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there’s no TSTL characters and is currently reading more fantasy and SciFi.

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