I had had my eye on Sophie Hardach’s novel, Confession with Blue Horses, for some time before I borrowed a copy from my local library’s app. The novel revolves around a family living in East Germany, who are affected in myriad ways when the wall dividing East and West Berlin is raised, and when it finally comes down. I am fascinated by German history, and have read surprisingly little set within the relatively modern period. The Times writes that Hardach’s ‘unsentimental novel gives a nuanced picture of East Germany’, and it thus felt like a good starting point.
Siblings Tobi and Ella grew up in East Berlin; their childhood is ‘shrouded in mystery’. As adults, both live in London, but wonder frequently about their past. Both ‘remember their family’s daring and terrifying attempt to escape, which ended in tragedy; but the fall-out from that single event remains elusive.’ Ella particularly wonders where her parents went when they disappeared, and what happened to their younger brother, Heiko. Ella also asks herself whether there was ‘ever a painting of three blue horses’, something which lives vividly in her memory, but which she has no proof of.
The prologue of Confession with Blue Horses begins in 1987. Here, Ella speaks of the ‘jagged nervousness that was typical of both my parents, who were never quite sure how to handle us.’ We are soon catapulted into the action of the family making their escape attempt from East Berlin, trying to get over the border into the west of the city to regain their freedom. They are not allowed to take anything with them; Ella recalls: ‘My two little brothers were all they carried. We did not need suitcases, tickets, passports, keys.’
The story then moves forward in time to 2010, where Ella is living in an ‘old fishing boat that had been dumped into Deptford Creek’. There are, perhaps, some unlikely elements within this story. On her deathbed, Ella’s mother begged her not to try to find their younger brother, who went missing during their escape attempt: ‘We had been looking for him for years, it was our only real activity together, and I had expected her last request to be the exact opposite: that I would spend the rest of my days searching for him.’
Alongside Ella and Tobi’s childhood, and their present in London, a parallel story takes place in contemporary Berlin. Here, an English PhD student named Aaron is working as an archivist, ‘piecing together the tragic history of thousands of families’ during the tumultuous period of divisions within Germany: ‘With a faint pang of guilt he realised that he was treating his internship as a thriller. Which was probably inappropriate given how much suffering these millions of pages documented, but then again, it was thrilling; certainly more thrilling than attending post-graduate research seminars at his university back in London.’ Aaron becomes obsessed with one particular file – that of Ella’s family. Of course, his path collides with hers when she visits Berlin, armed with a stack of notebooks given to her by her mother, and on a mission to unravel her history.
Overall, Hardach handles the sweep of tumultuous history well, and her research feels impeccable. She focuses on Ella’s place within it, but also comments on how her parents and grandparents fared. The way in which the story moves back and forth in time is controlled and well plotted. I appreciated the differences which Hardach drew between the Berlin of the Wall era, and the novel’s present day, which she describes in the following way: ‘It was all rather fun and uplifting and yet it unsettled me because I could not find myself, or my family, in any of this. It was not just the yoga studios and the restored facades and the ivy winding in and out of the balconies. It was the people. Everyone was so young and healthy looking.’ Hardach shows throughout that she understands how difficult it must be to come to terms with, and to reconcile, such a past.
I very much enjoy the technique of using different stories set in differing time periods in novels. I found there to be a lot of convenient coincidences within the modern day story, some of which did not quite sit right with me as a reader, but I understand that they were necessary in the grand scheme of things. Both storylines kept me engaged throughout, and whilst I did feel detached from some of the characters, I still found it rather a compelling read. I must admit, though, that I did not really warm to our protagonist, Ella; it felt as though she was continually holding things back, and she never felt entirely realistic to me.