In quick succession I’ve read a couple of a historical YA novels (a pigeonhole I’ve got more than a passing interest in) by Paul Dowswell recently, The Cabinet of Curiosities and Sektion 20.
The Cabinet of Curiosities has the harder job to do because it’s set in such an unfamiliar world – Prague in the mid 1500s. The book might as well be set in a fantasy world, for all the research Dowswell has to cram in to give a real sense of time and place.
It’s the story of orphaned Lukas, who comes to Prague to live with his uncle after his father is burnt to death by the Inquisition. Lukas’s uncle Anselmus is physician to the emperor, Rudolph, a melancholic figure who collects curiosities (from religious artifacts to supposedly magic trinkets) in a grand chamber at the heart of his castle. Despite an interest in alchemy and astrology, Rudolph is not a superstitious man. The Spanish may have banished the Jews from their country but in Rudolph’s Prague they are free to live side by side with Christians and Muslims.
Naturally, this raises the ire of the constantly hovering Inquisition. Failing to convince Rudolph to return to the Catholic fold and abandon his heretical ways, they come up with another way to restore Prague’s loyalty to the Pope. Living a double life (working with his uncle in the castle by day, hanging out with the wastrels by night – and keeping both lives secret from the other side), only orphan boy Lukas is in a position to stop the assassination plot.
What follows is predictably a dramatic story full of betrayal and redemption (though not necessarily in that order) with characters that are so easy to root for they are too uncomplicated to be memorable, and lots of vivid historical detail. The only thing that really lets it down is the dialogue, which tries to avoid cod historical thees and thous but often verges on the anachronistic as a result.
Sektion 20, on the other hand, has no such difficulties, being set four centuries later. It’s also perhaps more resonant because the world it takes place in has only really slipped out of recent history, well, recently, and is still living memory for many.
East Germany in the mid 1970s still hasn’t recovered from the Second World War. Buildings still haven’t been repaired, and homes don’t have telephones, heating or baths. Dowswell depicts a country of people who were so determined to reject the Far Right following Hitler’s downfall that they embraced the Far Left instead – and ended up with pretty much the same government anyway.
Dowswell slowly reveals the insidious nature of the communist police state as it affects the every day life of teenagers living in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, on what they eventually come to consider the wrong side of it. It starts innocuously enough (you would think) with teenager Alex letting his hair grow too long. He can’t quite believe this is enough to attract the attention of the Stasi, but attract their attention it does.
After all, as the teachers at school explain, wanting to be different from others is a sign of egotism and vanity, because the only reason you wouldn’t want to be like everyone else (homogeny having been rebranded equality) is because you think you are better than they are. As their troubles escalate, Alex’s family eventually realise that they have to disappear from East Germany, before the Stasi do the job for them.
The no man’s land that borders the two Germanys may only be yards across, but that journey (hidden in the van of professional people smugglers) will probably prove to be the longest of their lives. And West Germany may not be the utopia of freedom that Alex and his friends assumed it would be when they stood at a high window on the East side and looked over the Wall.
I didn’t know much more about East Germany in the 1970s than I did about Prague in the 1500s but Dowswell is more successful with creating a convincing, immersive world in Sektion 20. It’s usually easy to forget that the last ripples of the Second World War were still spreading out when I was born, and seems strange to remember that there were still dictatorships in the heart of Europe in my lifetime.
Dowswell has written a great thriller, its suspense all the more palpable because the Orwellian twists are based on truth. My only complaint is that he starts to develop a mystery in the second half that ratchets up the tension considerably, only to reveal his hand far too swiftly. Still, that would have made it a different book, and it’s probably not fair to judge it too harshly against what might have been.
I’m very tempted to read Auslander next, the book for which Dowswell won all the awards the others were only nominated for.