Trigger warning: mention of sexual assault, violence, racism, the fall of Berlin, and some very disturbing quotes pulled from nonfiction sources
DNF at 20%. No rating.
This is my second Saracen read and I don’t think there will be a third. I was excited to read Berlin Hungers because Saracen’s book seemed rooted in thorough historical research. I was also excited to see the fall of Berlin portrayed in genre fiction. Fiction can personalize history more effectively than nonfiction. Yet Berlin Hungers failed to achieve this for me.
I want to make something clear: I think it is very important to include rape and sexual assault in any book about the fall of Berlin. There has been so much state-sponsored historical erasure of the trauma that German women faced that it would be harmful not to. I want to make something else clear: I expected this book to be disturbing. Kate Manne, in Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, writes this about mass rape: “...the spirit in which mass rapes tend to be committed is typically vindictive, punitive, triumphalist, and domineering.” In Anthony Beever’s The Fall of Berlin 1945, he mentions that there were documented cases of rape of girls as young as twelve and women as old as eighty. Again, Kate Manne writes about Berlin, “Nobody was exempt - not nuns, not pregnant women in a hospital, not even women in the process of giving birth there.” This was systematic torture and it was carried out in the most hateful and brutal ways imaginable. Many women died; many women committed suicide as a direct result of their trauma, sometimes decades later. The full scale of the violence still goes unacknowledged by Russia today.
So I will not complain about a book on this subject that includes sexual violence, or even revolves around sexual violence. On the contrary, it’s very important, to me, for a book about the fall of Berlin to do exactly that.
I didn’t finish it simply because it was dry as bones. One of the protagonists is put directly in harm’s way repeatedly, and yet her narration felt distant and unfeeling to me. To be clear, her attacks were not directly described (which I also think is important), but her trauma afterwards was described with paltry prose unable to encapture the enormity of her awful experiences. For example, at one point she feels “relieved” to walk down a street and not see her rapists. The word “relieved” stood out to me as so small and unbelievable; I couldn’t see her physical reactions, or really get to the core of her emotions. The writing just wasn’t there for me. I even thought, “Maybe she’s numbed because she’s in a state of shock,” but I don’t think the prose was that layered. There was nothing to indicate that more was going on inside her tangled psyche than the bone-dry words on the page.
I finally gave up because both of the narrators are racist. Specifically, I stopped when one of our protagonists offhandedly describes a group of people; all of the white people get names, but the only Asian man in the group is described “a rather ferocious-looking Mongol, a corporal with a long Asian name.”
This made me stop reading because a) I no longer felt sympathetic to the protagonist and b) it was very clear that I was supposed to feel sympathetic. She’s discriminated against by the English military because she’s a woman and a lesbian, and over and over again her plight is made front-and-center, and other characters are villainized for their prejudices. Yet she was permitted to be racist without the author adding in the same amount of irony and nuance for the nameless Asian man that the protagonist was given.
It was the last straw of a read that was at best completely emotionally neutral for me.
Overall, with a subject this heavy, I need heartfelt and complex characters to draw me into the core of the events. And I just wasn’t getting that with Berlin Hungers.