Book Review: Distant Signs by Anne Richter, trans. Douglas Irving (Neem Tree Press)

A subtle, thought-provoking book, dare I say, an elegant take on the post-war period in the GDR.

I began reading this book on my Kindle. I clicked past the black and white front cover to the Opening Note. I picked out the words “life in the German Democratic Republic” and “flashbacks to events before and after the Second World War”. I exclaimed to my husband “this sounds just like my kind of book”. I envisaged fast-paced action, suspense and high-drama and was surprised by the slower, more detailed unravelling of the story.

As its protagonists, the book takes three generations of the Gräf family with each chapter focusing on a different family member. In each chapter the style changes, swapping from first-person to third person, and with notable efforts in the translation to convey the different dialects spoken by the different characters. The events of the GDR post-war period are there and alluded to, but they are not the focus. Instead they form the background, allowing the author to explore how these events affected individuals living through them. We see the coming together of different people, of married couples with different upbringings trying to reconcile their differences and how these internal familial factors are influenced by the environment they are living in.

Beginning in 1965, each chapter jumps forward in time, ending in 1992. We witness the changes in perspective and we see how influential young people were in bringing about change. One chapter that I found particularly moving is that of Hans’ awakening “from a decades-long dream that had felt not unpleasant … This dream was his life so far.” Over the course of these pages, Hans takes stock of his life so far and starts to realise that he has missed out on so much but that hope has not all gone. Alongside changes in his wife’s life, together they reconcile their relationship and begin to move forward to a more positive future.

Throughout the book, cultural and historical notes are highlighted for anyone wishing to know more. The Kindle version of the book makes this very easy to navigate as clicking on the link takes you straight to the relevant note. Another click and you’re back where you were. I was also able to access information from Wikipedia with a quick tap. However, when I received the hard copy, I realised that had I seen the physical copy first, my initial inaccurate expectations may have been lessened. The colours and imagery on the cover convey its gentler nature.

Having begun this book with a view of how it was going to pan out, I was so taken aback that I went back and read the book in its entirety for a second time. This is a far more subtle, thought-provoking book, dare I say, an elegant take on the post-war period in the GDR.

Many thanks to Neem Tree Press for the copy. As publisher Archna Sharma says, “in this environment of the rhetoric of building walls, we really need to celebrate a wall that came down against all odds…”

To purchase a copy, please see the links below.

Waterstones Amazon Browns

Many thanks to Neem Tree Press for the review copy.

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