Kirsty Bell, an Anglo-American, had always found something troubling about her flat overlooking the Landwehr Canal in Berlin. When a leak appeared, and her marriage to a German began to drain away, she decided to investigate the area’s porous history. “Things tend to disappear in a city built on sand,” she writes.
What follows is a fascinating mosaic of the German capital. Bell rummages through the archives of her 19th-century building for fragments of life, and sets them alongside, for example, her thoughts on the sketches of Adolph Menzel, the “depressing dimensions” of the city’s architecture—as revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg put it—and brilliant glimpses of the 1920s and 1930s through the eyes of writers and artists Gabriele Tergit, Hannah Höch and Käthe Kollwitz. This is not the usual Boy’s Own, Führer-obsessed history of Berlin; Bell highlights the women who transgressed borders and pushed the city on.
Among them were the Trümmerfrauen, or rubble-women, who restored order in the aftermath of war. Bell discovers ruins buried under turf and, quoting research in epigenetics, shows how the “suppressed emotions” of traumatised generations continue to be passed on. She walks the line of the Wall, and reports on Berlin’s extensive squatter and protest movement, though without truly exploring the city’s subcultures or how dancefloors brought together clubbers from east and west after reunification. Since 2010, she laments, independent Berlin has been steadily flushed out by corporate money.
Bell interrupts an absorbing read when questioning her own project, or repeating the already-said with platitudes or paraphrases. That’s a shame, because a shrewder edit may have transformed this intriguing book into a gem.