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Books About Letters: "The Berlin Letters"

Longtime readers of the Books About Letters series may recall our 2022 review of 'The London House' by Katherine Reay. When I saw 'The Berlin Letters' by Katherine Reay (HarperCollins, 2024) available on NetGalley for review, I had to jump at the chance! In this novel, we time travel from the 1960s to 1989 as a young woman learns the truth about herself, her family, and her country through the medium of coded letters during the Cold War. Read on for a review and thoughts on this month's Book About Letters.

(P.S. I cannot look at this cover and not think of Uma Thurman!)

Our main character, Louisa, works by day as a CIA code breaker and discovers through the course of a routine assignment a symbol she recognizes -- from childhood. So we begin the story of Louisa and Haris Voekler, the father she never knew now ominously imprisoned in East Germany.

So the fundamental question: Is this a book about letters? Yes! We learn thanks to Louisa's well honed skill for code breaking that letters containing news about life in East Berlin have been making it out from behind the Wall for almost thirty years. But it is up to Louisa to detangle to what extent these letters have shaped not only her life, but history generally. While not wholly epistolary -- there are at length letters 'reproduced' in the context of the story, however -- this novel qualifies as a Book About Letters because they are used as a key plot device and are referenced with regularity as the story progresses.

If you, like me, know very little about the history behind the construction of the Berlin Wall and the regime(s) that developed around it, I recommend this excellent video from TED-Ed to help contextualize the dense history:

Reay's well researched novel weaves the historical and the human together with evident craft. World building plays a huge part in this novel as Louisa learns about her background and the very real circumstances of not only her father, but the citizens of East Berlin just before the Wall 'came down' in 1989. Through the use of journalist characters in her plotting, Reay is able to explain and layer exposition which flavors the novel as her talent for human connection braids the narratives.

I first visited Berlin in August of 2023. Strangely enough, Reay in her acknowledgments writes that she spent February of the same year exploring the city for research. An eerie parallel. I had never been to Germany before and found it hard to visualize, or imagine, the trip in the lead up. I could have never pictured the city I found there. I had a wonderful, local tour guide -- my penpal, Alex -- who brought us around and showed us -- it felt -- like almost 'everything' in just one gloriously hot day. We saw Barenberg Gate, saw the remnants of the Wall, and visited Checkpoint Charlie among other spots.

It was that trip to Berlin that colored my experience of 'The Berlin Letters' so vividly. And I am so thankful for both the opportunity to travel there then and to return to the city through Reay's words. I believe that reading can transport us and to be able to map the Berlin I had experienced against the world Reay builds in her novel, added to my overall enjoyment while reading.

Thank you to NetGalley for the chance to read and review 'The Berlin Letters' by Katherine Reay, out March 5th from HarperCollins publishing.

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Do you have a book in mind about letters you think I should read and review for "Books About Letters"? Let me know! Send me an email at 

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