Sektion 20 by Paul Dowswell- Shortlisted - Published by Bloomsbury



The book Sektion 20 is set in the 28-year period of unrest from 1949 onwards when Germany was divided into East and West: the Berlin Wall. Our story follows an adolescent boy, Alex Ostermann (appropriate since the German for east is osten) and his family and friends. Alex starts his life in the East, a communist nation ruled by Honecker, the state's veteran leader, but though his parents are firm supporters of the Party, Alex and his sister Geli oppose the harsh and restricting lifestyle and long for the freedom of the West and the liberty to practise their talents; playing the guitar and photography respectively. Though the teenagers are oblivious to this, the Stasi have noticed their unwillingness to support communism and their ranting about the joys of the distant West - an unknown paradise standing just beyond their grasp.

Meanwhile, Erich Kohl, a spy for the Stasi is set on their trail to find evidence of their blasphemy and is brought yet closer to his targets following the arrest of a friend of Alex and his girlfriend Sophie Kirsch's when he attempts border violation; to cross the wall dividing East and West. Ostermann is arrested following a conversation between him and Kirsch about braving this themselves, on suspicion of being a spy, and when days later he is released from the Hohenschönhausen his parents are distraught with the shame of their rebellious son. Not soon after, Alex's father has a surprising announcement: they are going to cross the border and move to the West. He has hired professional border violators to transport them there and much to the astonishment of his wife and children, Frank Ostermann follows through with his words and they find themselves living in West Berlin, though not without a shooting at the Wall. Alex and Geli find themselves loving the West, every day amazed by the new smells and sights; even the fresh fruit glistening in the marketplaces is an extraordinary phenomenon to these communist teenagers.

However, the motives for Frank's shocking decision are unveiled when we discover he has been working as a Stasi spy for Kohl, who uses the threat of the abduction of this children against Ostermann to make him a mere puppet on a string for East Germany. We also find out that Kohl is in fact not Erich Kohl, Stasi officer and former German policeman, but an ex-Nazi, faking an identity so he can forget his past and move high up in the political party. And though it has been years, there is someone on to him. A man from Kohl's past, who has finally found him after years of searching, and waiting, and hoping for a chance to can kill this fraud and expose the truth.

Frank is suffering under the pressure of his responsibility, and in a moment of despair and weakness, the truth tumbles out of him in an avalanche of stuttering admittances and helpless appeals for forgiveness. Though they are resentful of this betrayal, the Ostermanns are weighed down by a new turn of events: Alex has been kidnapped by Kohl. The Stasi had bugged the apartment and heard Frank's every word. Two days later, after a desperate phone call and in a grey cloud of worry the distraught father meets Erich Kohl to collect his son, though unknown to Kohl he is being tracked by two West German Secret Service officers, who plan to let Frank lead them to him and then arrest the kidnapper. However, when Frank finds himself and his son in Kohl's apartment with a gun pointed at their heads the West German police have not yet appeared and Frank grows increasingly worried - but to his delight and shock a man bursts in (Kohl's stalker, but we do not yet know this) and Kohl runs away in a mist of fear and surprise. The Ostermanns are saved, Kohl is imprisoned and the Secret Police turn up moments after he flees; the only person who knew his real identity is congratulated and the book ends in that cliché we know so well - they all lived happily ever after.

Overall, I think that Sektion 20 is a brilliant book; I picked it up knowing nothing about the Berlin Wall and feel like through reading the book I have learnt worlds about life in Germany in that period; it is extremely informative but has the effect of telling about the hardships of that era through a reasonably light-hearted and engaging read. The characters each have very unique personalities and we learn about them very gradually, almost satisfyingly so, as they are unveiled through the book. It also conveys very realistically the ideas about living in East Germany after the Second World War through many different characters and from this we can gain an objective view on it. It was very effective the way the remarkable turn of events came about, as though at first they appeared almost too remarkable, the story explains itself and we come to realise the truth about Frank Ostermann's decision. I now would like to find out more about this historic period, as there are many aspects which the book has not pursued, though it does appear to have given a fully-rounded view about the hardships both sides of the Wall.

However, I think that although the novel was thrilling and very informative, it was extremely driven by the plot and did not include much use of descriptive writing, which made reading it very light but it did not challenge one's vocabulary, and for this reason I would recommend it to someone from between roughly 9 and 12; it is suitable for either gender but might appeal slightly more to males than females.

by Kitty

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