Stasiland by Anna Funder won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2004 (now known as the Baillie Gifford Prize) and chronicles the lives of several people who lived in the German Democratic Republic, also known as East Germany, during the Cold War. Funder, an Australian journalist, was working in television in the mid-1990s when she put an ad in a newspaper seeking stories from those who experienced life under the Stasi regime. They include Miriam who was caught trying to cross the Berlin Wall as a teenager, Julia whose Italian boyfriend raised suspicion among Stasi officers, and Frau Paul whose baby son was taken to a west Berlin hospital on the night the Wall was constructed leaving her stuck on the other side after refusing to inform for the Stasi. Funder also spoke to former Stasi officers, some of whom remained sympathetic to the regime. The number of Stasi officers and informants – estimated to be as high as 1 in 6.5 of the population – is staggering and their methods of surveillance, control and manipulation even more so. Given Funder collected these stories not long after the Wall fell, ‘Stasiland’ is an important collection of eyewitness accounts told by those who had recently lived through such a turbulent time.
Another prize-winner which has been sitting on my shelves for several years is The Road Home by Rose Tremain which was awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2008 (now known as the Women’s Prize). It tells the story of Lev, a recently widowed man who leaves his home in an unspecified part of eastern Europe to seek better work in London. Some of the state-of-the-nation commentary was probably quite shocking to most people at the time it was published, although certain aspects are quite dated now – the price Lev pays for his rent will make Londoners green with envy today, for example. Lev fares better than most in other ways too, quickly landing on his feet with a girlfriend and a job at a smart restaurant which leads to other employment opportunities. The strangeness of London at the turn of the century through the eyes of someone from a former Communist regime is depicted with great humanity, even if there are a few too many clichés in the plot and characterisation that probably wouldn’t get past an editor today.
I Have Some Questions For You by Rebecca Makkai is a true crime mystery in which podcast producer Bodie Kane returns to Granby, the elite boarding school in New Hampshire she attended in the 1990s, to make a series with current students about the murder of her classmate, Thalia Keith. The school’s young athletic trainer, Omar Evans, was quickly imprisoned, but online sleuths have poured doubts over the safety of his conviction ever since. Bodie’s return to her school also forces her to confront the impact of some uncomfortable experiences of her own during her time there. Makkai manages the sometimes awkward balance of writing within the true crime genre while also critiquing its impact. Some readers might be unsatisfied by the amount of loose ends and uncertainties Makkai leaves hanging in the plot, but I think this is part of her very deliberate message that nothing is clear cut, even if certain corners of the Internet would like it to be.
Translated from the French by Megan Jones, Second Best by David Foenkinos imagines what happened to the young boy who lost out to Daniel Radcliffe to play the role of Harry Potter in the film series. Foenkinos imagines this child as Martin Hill, the son of a French mother and English father who are divorced. It’s an interesting premise from which to explore the impact of failure, and it’s uncomfortable to see Martin unable to move on with his life as he grows up due to the omnipresence of the boy wizard phenomenon which only seems to increase over the years when the films are released. It leads to a somewhat inevitable conclusion in which Martin finally confronts the thing he hates the most. I wonder if Daniel Radcliffe has read this book…