Zoo Station by David Downing
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
You’ll like Zoo Station, if you like Philip Kerr’s ‘Bernie Gunther’ stories or Robert Harris’ ‘Fatherland’. If you like Alan Furst.
If you like thrillers set in Europe the years leading up to the outbreak of WWII.
If you’d like a tantalizing glimpse into a somewhat forgotten – and in many ways, misunderstood – world.
Zoo Station, the first in David Downing’s Zoo series, is a really rather wonderful and absorbing period piece. In essence; a small tale set against a much bigger, darker backdrop. Involving ordinary people doing ordinary things, like just getting on with their lives, during extraordinary circumstances. The ‘hero’, is John Russell, an English freelance newspaper writer living in Germany in the early months of 1939, obviously just before the outbreak of World War II. Though, as the book further illustrates (and as if you have read anything else about this period, you will know), ‘outbreak’ is much more accidental-sounding than was actually the case. Through Russell, we see how the Nazi party has infiltrated its way into the minutiae of Germans’ everyday life. And not in a pleasant way of course. You don’t need to have done, but it certainly would increase you understanding of novels set in this period, if you had read a book like Richard J. Evans’ The Coming of the Third Reich.
With hindsight, it might seem a little strange that an Englishman is living in Germany at this time. But he has good reason to be there. His has an ex-wife, a son and a beautiful, actress girlfriend to care for. He becomes involved with the Russians, ostensibly writing articles on typical German daily life, so the Russian people might better understand their prospective allies. But really he’s spying. He knows that and thinks that as long as he can keep the Russians where he can see them, he’ll be ok. The same with his British allies. As of course, the British also want a piece of the information cake. So Russell in effect becomes something of an unwitting double agent, with no real master but himself and no real loyalty to anyone, apart from to his family. But, being an Englishman more than somewhat integrated into pre-War German society, gives Russell the opportunity to observe, perhaps understand – though without condoning – and maybe react differently to the zeitgeist. Differently to how a typical German person would have. Or would have been able to have done.
I found this a wonderful, engaging and involving read. An Englishman in a strange land, just doing the right thing, without fanfare. Acting heroically when looked back on, but only made heroic by the times. It is sublimely written and plotted, really well put together. You can almost touch the atmosphere of pre-War Berlin (I have no idea what the pre-War Berlin atmosphere was really like, but I can’t imagine it being far from what is brought out here). It’s the little things, the small incidents that do it. Giving English lessons to Jewish children, taking trains to Poland, trips to London, picking his son up from his ex-wife, all give this story its edge over others you might read. It’s not exactly what you’d think of if I said ‘a real page-turner’, but to someone who appreciates fine writing and acute observation, sometimes with an acerbic edge *takes bow*, it was a book I found very hard to put away. The best part is, there are many more to come after this one.
My only beef, would be with the recommendation on the cover. I’m never normally a great fan of ‘a wonderful evocation of *insert long, long ago time period here* -type recommendations. I mean, unless they themselves were the character’s age during that very same time, how do they know? It’s not just about knowing the facts of what went on, that’s often the easy part. It’s surely about knowing about what people felt at that time and why. And the ‘and why’ can only come if you grew up in that period, were there and were affected by those special circumstances. A person born today would, when reaching writing/author age, surely have trouble imagining a time when there was no Internet, for instance. Tell someone that TVs used to be only black and white, only one or two channels and were the size of a Shetland pony – see what kind of look you get back. So someone saying it is ‘a wonderful evocation of…’, is guessing it is, hoping it is and probably should have inserted ‘in my opinion’ in there somewhere. Having said all that…this, in my opinion and based on what I have read about the period – and with parents still alive who were alive during that period, IS ‘an extraordinary evocation of Nazi Germany on the eve of war…’, as CJ Sansom says on the front cover.
If you like an absorbing read, a good tale well told and with more to come. This is for you.