Current events mean that I’m unsure how to review Stasi Child. It caused quite a stir when it came out a few years ago for taking the police procedural formula and placing it within a different decade, regime and world view. It introduced us to an excellent cast of characters: Oberleutnant Karin Müller who wants to believe the best (while knowing the worst) of the East German republic, her Stasi nemesis-stroke-protector Jäger and three-dimensional sidekicks Tilsner and Schmidt. Previous visitors to this blog will know these names and may already have read the reviews of Stasi Wolf, A Darker State and Stasi 77. The next in the series, Stasi Winter, out next month, involves some characters that appear in the first of the series and so I am filling the missing gaps in my knowledge.
Reading series in the wrong order can be illuminating. You can see how an author’s ideas or ambitions change over time, and how they use the world they’ve created to project those ideas onto. So Stasi 77 was a police procedural, sure, but the story was all about *checks previous review* ‘individual and collective fear, guilt, courage and moral certitude’.
But in Stasi Child, you feel that David Young is still feeling his way a little, laying the foundations of it all. He gives us a sharp thriller filled with humanity, and gets us to root for the key characters, even as he describes their shortcomings. He also describes the abuse of power by the system and the state, and the injustices that the powerful inflict on the powerless. The system’s paranoia requires it to purge, punish and to use psychological means to control its populace. Mediocrities rise to position of power by their ability to game the system. Power is sought for its own sake. The regime loses its moral legitimacy – not immediately, but over time. There are far too many people on both left and right who are eager to think this description matches their political opponents.
It is, of course, election week in the UK, and although it’s in some ways an easy comparison to make, a main theme both of the election and of this novel is trust. It seems that a consensus has emerged that the prime minister’s word cannot be trusted. The question of the election is whether or not this is also true about other politicians and thus whether it matters at all. And David Young’s novel is really all about what happens in an absence of trust.
Young is careful to make it clear that no one in the DDR can trust anyone else, even if they are on the same side. It isn’t just a political issue, either. We pretty much start with Müller having shared a drunken kiss with Tilsner. Her husband doesn’t trust her; later on it’s reciprocated. In addition, Müller doesn’t trust her subordinates, her boss, the guy from the Stasi or her awful neighbour across the landing. Children fleeing the regime can trust neither each other nor the East German authorities, nor even those in the West. Parents can’t trust their children. If the state can make liars out of us, Young seems to say, it’s because we weren’t trustworthy in the first place. It’s dispiriting and it’s exhausting: ideal for a taut psychological thriller masquerading as a police procedural (see, we couldn’t even trust that) and a rotten way to run a country.
If you haven’t already, you’ll want to read this before Stasi Winter comes out shortly. Trust me.