Paul Dowswell is one of the best writers I know of historical novels for young people. There’s lots to like about his books but, for me, what stands out is his ability to write from an unusual perspective. In Auslander he gave us a view of the Nazi regime from inside it – but an outsider’s inside view. Eleven Eleven offers us a view of the First World War from the position of combatants of three nationalities, one of whom is conflicted about where he belongs.
My choice today, however, is Sektion 20, set in 1970s Berlin. So within my lifetime. I’m not quite as old as the protagonists in the novel but I’m old enough to remember quite clearly when Berlin was a city divided by a wall. I was fascinated by this as a teenager and had a strange desire to visit. At the end of 1989 I watched on television the fall of the barricade and, although I was hugely excited by the historic events unfolding in Germany, a part of me was disappointed that I’d never realise that desire.
Sektion 20 took me back to those days – bad old days, without a doubt – and showed me some of what it was actually like living in divided Berlin. The novel is set in both East and West and doesn’t just point to the contrasting fortunes of the citizens; it shows that the reality was less than clear-cut. I had a little more background knowledge by the time I read this book. I visited Berlin twice in the aftermath of the Wall coming down and learned a lot from those visits and the people I met. Paul Dowswell, however, researched meticulously before writing his story. He doesn’t deave his readers with his knowledge, though; rather he allows his characters and plot to demonstrate the situation.
Politics, philosophy, action, suspense and human nature are thrown up in the air, caught and worked into a dramatic pattern in this fascinating novel.