Review: West

Julia Franck’s West is set in Marienfelde transit camp in Berlin where immigrants fleeing communist Eastern Europe were given food and housing whilst being interrogated. Here many immigrants remained for months, or even years. The novel follows the lives of several of these immigrants as they attempt to create a new start for themselves.

Recently translated into English, West explores life between the East and West during the Cold War as the protagonist, Nelly Senff, escapes East Berlin only to face further interrogations and discomfort in the transit camps set up to hold suspicious immigrants in West Berlin. The novel is beautifully spun with multiple narratives highlighting different, but interlinked, experiences of life divided between two states, ways of life and ideologies.

The novel focuses on psychological scars left by loss and persecution and tells a powerful tale of life in limbo as Nelly refuses to cooperate with the CIA when she arrives with her two children and ‘fiancé’ in West Berlin. The CIA are particularly interested in Nelly’s deceased husband, Vassily Batalov, whose past and apparent suicide remains mysterious throughout the majority of the novel. Beyond the long interrogations, Franck further illustrates the hypocrisy of the West as it becomes more evident that the camp is merely an open prison which follows separate laws and has a clear hierarchy. The poverty of the immigrants is treated with contempt as the ‘prisoners’ rely on rations and food stamps and their children are segregated from the locals at the kindergarten.

As the tale unwinds, it becomes clear that little will change for those who attempt to escape repression. Depression, persecution, appalling working conditions, paranoia, and taunts are endured by those in the camp who remain just as helpless on the other side of the wall as they had been in the East.

Julia Franck’s previous bestselling novel, The Blind Side of the Heart, won the German Book Prize and sold one million books in Germany alone, and her newest novel, West, looks set to head in the same successful direction.