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Past, present, East, West meet in Berlin

Special to The Times

PERSONAL betrayal and making amends, traveling far then going home again -- the tension between flight and pursuit lies at the heart of “Broken Ground,” an atmospheric third novel by Kai Maristed, author of “Out After Dark,” a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award.

The book is aptly named, both for its setting in contemporary Berlin, a bombed-out city still being rebuilt more than 50 years after World War II and 14 years after Germany’s reunification, and for its characters’ tenuous foundations.

The book’s overt focus is the search by middle-aged, U.S.-born Kaethe Shalk for her 22-year-old daughter Sophie, whom she lost in a custody battle years earlier to her aristocratic German ex-husband. Now Sophie has fled and neither parent knows where she is. Kaethe’s pain is palpable.

Almost immediately, however, the reader sees that Kaethe’s search is the slimmest narrative excuse to explore Berlin and its two halves, uneasily reunited after the 1989 demolition of the infamous Wall. As Kaethe wanders from the glittering shopping malls of the capitalist West to the still shabby streets of the formerly communist East, the reader learns the city’s layout, the smell of the subway where “the tunnel air blows moist with shag tobacco and chocolate, hashish and 4711 cologne,” and its history -- from the 1960s student uprisings to the lesser known fate of the East German aristocracy.

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Kaethe, who is half German and half American, becomes a symbol not only of the difficulties of reunification but of a lack of human connection on a smaller scale, from her broken marriage to her bumpy ride as a mother and her inability to understand her own actions. As Kaethe tries to reconnect with Sophie, she also is struggling to making sense of her own fragmentary past, as if to say you can only succeed with others if you make your broken self whole. And so she reviews life’s losses: her youth in New England with her disapproving grandparents and her divorced alcoholic German-born mother, now all dead; her teenage years with her father, Max, a U.S. defector to the East and a high-ranking communist official (although he is way too philosophical and ironic for a truly hard-line party man); and her own minor affiliation with the Stasi, East Germany’s vast spy network, which appeared to employ almost all its citizens to spy on each other and the West Germans. Past bumps up against present as Kaethe meets former lover Matthias, a pastor she now discovers had been jailed because of her reports to the Stasi -- missives she had considered boring and unrevealing at the time.

Maristed does an excellent job of showing how the past never lets go. But her themes of disconnection and reunification never quite come together as a human story. Indeed, in its rumination on larger issues, the book sometimes has the feel of a history lesson thinly disguised as fiction. Characters spill facts, especially Max, who at one point describes the history of Berlin to a teenage Kaethe as if he were teaching a class. Sophie, too, remains a ghostly fragment. Although there is a wonderful early chapter written from Sophie’s point of view as a child -- which is one of the best pieces of writing in the book, with the taut power of a short story -- she remains merely the object of her mother’s yearning, never a real human being. And a long section putting Kaethe back in time to the New England farmhouse she inherited from her grandparents, writing letters to Sophie she’ll never send, feels like a device to relay some of Kaethe’s personal history, artificially weaving it into the narrative of her search for Sophie.

Clearly, Maristed, a writer previously praised for her clarity and terseness, is trying something new here, the portrayal of broken lives with fragmentary prose. But the narrative often seems slack, with too many descriptions of rooms, meals and domestic moments not original enough to allow the reader to forgive the tangents. Nevertheless, “Broken Ground” has some beautiful descriptions -- a late kiss with Matthias, the New England snow, the final scenes set in tunnels beneath Berlin (surely symbolic of mining the depths of one’s psyche) -- so that just as one begins to feel that the book is merely an aimless ramble through dull flatlands, one stumbles on moments of scenic beauty.


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