February 11, 2019

The House of One Thousand Eyes

Written by Michelle Barker
Annick Press
978-1-77321-071-1
354 pp.
Ages 14+
2018

The House of One Thousand Eyes is a dark book but 1980s East Berlin was a dark time and place. It was a time of the Berlin Wall and the Stasi (the State Security Service) and repression of thought, opportunity and interaction. It was a time of oppression and control and secret-keeping. It was dark and even more so for seventeen-year-old Lena Altmann.

When she lost her parents in a factory explosion, Lena was sent to an asylum. After three years of treatment, she was released into the care of her aunt, a Party member, who treats Lena as a simpleton in need of direction to prevent her readmission to the hospital.
...but Auntie was a good citizen, and goodness was rewarded.
     Badness, however, got you a one-way ticket to smartening up... (pg. 57)
Unfortunately, her Uncle Erich, whom she adores and visits weekly, is a writer and a man of opinions and insight. 
Paper could get a person in trouble. When you wrote something down, you gave it life and made it yours. (pg. 22)
When she witnesses the removal of his things from his flat and finds a new tenant in place who tells her he has lived there for five years, Lena wonders whether she is delusional. She is told by all that she has no uncle. She cannot locate any of his books at the bookstores or library (her own have disappeared as have her photos of him) and is told there is no birth record of such person.

Working as a night cleaner at Stasi headquarters, also know as the House of One Thousand Eyes, Lena tries to determine what happened to her uncle and cut through the deceit and illusion that all is right in the "Better Berlin." But will the wall she has built up in her own mind continue to protect her from harmful thoughts and brutality such as that she suffers nightly at the hands of one Stasi officer? Or is it like the real Berlin Wall, still in place in 1983, doing more harm than good or in danger of crumbling?

The House of One Thousand Eyes is a brilliant novel of historical fiction. The setting may only have been thirty-six years ago, still in my lifetime, but it's of a time and place so inaccessible, concealed in the propaganda disseminated by those in power and perpetuated by those choosing to survive at all costs, that it will seem far more distant.  It is a hard and dark time for East Berliners who had to choose whether to deceive themselves about the inequities perpetrated by a corrupt regime or to suffer the consequences, as does Lena's uncle, for free thought and disapproval. Just as Uncle Erich knows about veiling one story in another, Michelle Barker's subtext about mental health, social inequalities and the freedom of expression is never lost in the story of Lena as she searches for her uncle and tries to make sense of a world that often made no sense at all. But Michelle Barker builds up Lena's worlds, real and "schrullig," into a monument that honours lives lived with courage and conviction, never blocking the light of truth, and she does so with strength of words and greatness of style.

2 comments:

  1. A part of history not often written about. I know I would like to read this book myself.

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  2. This is a superb novel! Great review, Helen.

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