Lead Review

  • Book: Friedrichstrasse 19
  • Location: Berlin
  • Author: Emma Harding

Review Author: Tina Hartas



The characters all live in Friedrichstrasse 19 spanning a good century and it is the building that acts as the link between all the stories. As one of the characters says: The stage set of our lives remains. It is just us who disappear into the wings. The building is a constant, the people come and go, but delightfully they all leave a story behind.

This novel is constructed like a mutoscope – a flipbook of stories as it were – following the lives of several people in this single, beautiful building on the southern end of Friedrichstrasse in Berlin. The building bears witness to the tumultuous events that have formed and affected the city over the last 120 years or so, as characters grapple with the changing political landscape and deal with the impact of each manifestation on their lives. War, famine, massive inflation, the cabaret scene, terrorism, the city divided, the fall of the Wall – truly a city caught so often at the epicentre of world politics.

This is very much a novel of Berlin, it captures the city’s multiculturalism which has been a feature for decades: “... you realise that hardly anyone in Berlin belongs here, – everyone is a blow-in from the back of beyond, or from other countries altogether – and once you realise that, it is a great equaliser”. This has always been a city of paradoxes, and the stories of the people featured colourfully in the narrative underline the unique nature of the city. If you know Berlin well, then this novel will resonate; if you don’t, it might seem a little off key at times.

Stylistially this is an interesting and unusual construct. One character’s narrative leads to the next character – a sentence is left dangling and the next character picks up the thread, hijacking the story, sometimes intertwining, even though they may well be from different eras. The purpose seems to be to give an ethereal sense of people passing through the four walls, which serves the purpose well. Hopping back and forth through time, with different characters coming in and out of focus (the cinematic sense of the book) can be a little unsatisfying and I did struggle a little at times. And just when one story gets interesting, it peels off to focus afresh on another. It can be frustrating.

For a sense of the city and to really get a feel for it, then this is a great choice for a novel set in Berlin. The style, however, may not be to everyone’s taste.

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