book review · drama · family · historical · historical fiction · political · social history

Book Review – The Girl Behind The Wall

My favourite Historical Fiction book this year!

A city divided.
When the Berlin Wall goes up, Karin is on the wrong side of the city. Overnight, she’s trapped under Soviet rule in unforgiving East Berlin and separated from her twin sister, Jutta.
Two sisters torn apart.
Karin and Jutta lead parallel lives for years, cut off by the Wall. But Karin finds one reason to keep going: Otto, the man who gives her hope, even amidst the brutal East German regime.
One impossible choice…
When Jutta finds a hidden way through the wall, the twins are reunited. But the Stasi have eyes everywhere, and soon Karin is faced with a terrible decision: to flee to the West and be with her sister, or sacrifice it all to follow her heart?

Purchase link (publication date July 8th 2021)

My Review

Historical Fiction is one of my most favourite genres to read, and I’m a sucker for a WWII story. The Girl Behind The Wall, whilst set in Berlin, is not a war story since it takes place in the 1960s. However, the events of that day in 1961 when the Berlin Wall went up overnight has its roots very firmly set in the aftermath of WWII and the division of Berlin.

Identical twin sisters, Jutta and Karin, share an enviable thread that is about to be tested to its limits when Karin insists on travelling to the Eastern part of Berlin, despite not feeling so great. Normally, Jutta would have gone with her, but this time Karin can’t wait for her sister.

That night, their cousin, Hugo, an upcoming news reporter for the radio, hears rumblings of a story. He drags Jutta out with him to see what is going on, riding on his motorbike past all the checkpoints that mark the dividing line between East and West Berlin. Except the checkpoints are all closed and frenetic activity sees the making of a more permanent division, concrete and barbed wire split the city in two as the Berlin Wall goes up with Karin still in the East, after a ruptured appendix sees her hospitalised.

Jutta and the family in the West aren’t able to visit her but they can see no reason why she wouldn’t be allowed to return home once she recovers. Well, no reason other than the German Democratic Republic not granting her permission to leave – but they wouldn’t be so inflexible, would they? Hell, yeah.

When Karin recovers, her path to the West has been blocked and she has to accept the offer of her kind doctor to move in with him and his wife for the time being. Every step is considered temporary at first … until it not longer is.

Jutta is refused access to visit and Karin is refused permission to leave. The two young women who have never been apart are suddenly plunged into a new reality, never really understanding why their applications consistently fail. (The reason does become known eventually, but all too late for them)

Karin gets a job as a cleaner in the hospital, thanks again to the doctor, and has to come to terms with the fact that her life is now in East Berlin. Initially, she wants to leave, to go home to her family until she meets and falls in love with Otto, whose ambition is to rebuild East Germany from within as an architect. He has no real attachment to the West and only sees a future for him and his family – and Karin – in the East.

Jutta, from the other side of the Wall, is desperate to get her sister home, especially when letters aren’t getting through and telephone lines are down permanently. Her One day, when she is walking the length of the Wall, she hears the mewing of a cat and follows the sound to find a mother cat and her kittens in a deserted building that flanks the Wall. She gives the cat her lunch and explores a labyrinth of doors and rooms and ultimately a window that looks out into East Berlin.

She risks going over the window, checking carefully for any onlookers and lands with dusty knees in East Berlin, whereupon she heads for the hospital in the hope they know where Karin might now be. From here, the pace picks up as there is danger around every corner and Jutta’s paranoia reaches new heights. Even so, she continues, her desire to find her sister worth the risk.

A connection is made … but the reunion is a far cry from what Jutta expects. Karin is more alert to the dangers, but she also aware that her escape from the East could put those who looked out for her in danger too. And, of course, she has grown fond of Otto, too fond to consider a life without him.

Jutta, forlorn and disappointed, begs Karin to convince Otto to leave the East too and the two women meet up more often from then on. Jutta’s determination to bring Karin home knows no bounds, and she cannot understand why her sister might choose to stay with Otto than to return to her family.

It is not until Jutta finds love herself that she begins to understand, and while the two of them continue their very different lives, each time they meet up Jutta still hopes that Karin can persuade Otto to leave too.

The danger intensifies as Jutta is mistaken for Karin, and a familiar face keeps popping up which sets them both on edge. Have they been found out? Are they under surveillance? The mood is tense, and grows more unnerving with each visit. What began as two sisters divided by the Wall has now evolved into them having others in their lives that mean as much – if not more – to them than they do to each other. And for twins who have only really ever relied upon each other, it’s hard to accept, and even harder to admit to the other that other people are important to them too.

The Girl Behind The Wall is a story of decisions and sacrifices that threaten to tear a family apart. It’s emotional, tense, and highly addictive. So many families were broken up at this time, so many lives were lost as people attempted to flee, and so much mistrust and division was sown among communities as neighbours spied on neighbours. Thankfully, the Wall did come down eventually, but for so many it was too late. For Jutta and Karin, however, there was always hope and a thread between them that nothing could destroy.

Many thanks to Netgalley, Avon books and HarperCollins for my advanced copy of this book which I have reviewed voluntarily.