Telling a city’s story through a single building and its inhabitants is such an appealing device. Żanna Słoniowska did it memorably with Lviv in The House with the Stained-glass Window. Emma Harding’s Friedrichstrasse 19 takes a similar tack with the added lure of exploring the history of Berlin, always a favourite setting, through the lives of the tenants at the titular address from 1906, when the Academy of Magical Arts occupied the building, until 2019 as a recently divorced woman who crossed from East to West in November 1989 contemplates her future.
This is what it was to live in Berlin. To be surrounded by a truth you don’t acknowledge, that you refuse to see. But there was always going to be a point when it collides with you in the street and coughs in your face.
Taken in by his uncle in 1906, Rudi has found a niche for himself apprenticed to the Academy’s photographer, his nose put out of joint by Fräulein Gottschalk’s apparent ability to transfer her visions to photographic plates without benefit of a camera. In 1929, Sara is unhappily married when a chance encounter introduces her to the love of her life, a cabaret singer who lives upstairs from her. Two decades later Sigi still longs for her lover, knowing that there’s little chance that a young Jewish woman could have survived the war. In 1969, glamour photographer Hans has set up a studio in one of the apartments and takes in a runaway from the East, offering her shelter. By the mid-’80s a Red Army faction is squatting in the building, planning an operation in which a naïve young woman becomes involved. Finally, in 2019 Heike takes her courage in her hands, accompanying her friend on a speed dating evening where she meets Yosuf, and thinks tentatively of a future.
The city constantly destroyed and remade, impatient to be in the future
Harding’s narrative criss-crosses the century or so her novel spans, weaving backwards and forwards, opening in 1986 with Tonja’s horrified witnessing of the explosion she’s helped bring about. Each section is told from a character’s perspective, some starting mid-sentence, all with distinctive voices. Through them all, Harding explores themes of endurance, war and its legacy, from Hans’ horror at the discovery of his mother’s proximity to the Nazi regime to Sigi’s distress at the loss of Sara. It’s all beautifully done: Harding’s smartly observed characters pop up in each other’s narratives as their stories unfold and connections are made. There’s a hint of the supernatural with Fräulein Gottschalk’s visions and their echoes which usually make me run a mile but it’s deftly handled. Just one criticism: I’d have liked a ‘90s/’00s thread exploring the immediate aftermath of the Wall’s collapse. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed Harding’s atmospheric novel which took me back to Berlin and all that the city has gone through.
John Murray Press: London 9781529376180 256 pages Hardback