A year at the zoo

Zoo Station

By David Downing

I haven’t read much from war-time Berlin, and I think this was a good introduction. Not because of the story, but because of Downing’s vivid evocation of the time and place.

My reaction surprised me a little, because I delved into this book wanting action and adventure, spies and assassins, guns and car chases. I don’t even think that’s what it promised, but I wanted them anyway. How can you not want that when it’s about a British journalist/spy in Berlin just as war breaks out?

However, instead I got lots of understated cloak and dagger and, moreover, a rich tapestry of sensory and intellectual stimulation about what it was like to be in Europe in 1938, especially Berlin. That means this book is only half the book it could have been. Downing’s detail is accomplished. Not only can you see the trams, the imposing stone ministries, the smoky cafes and the uniformed soldiers, but you can also smell them all and really feel what it must have been like to live among them. For that rich evocation, I commend Downing.

And while I know that the war was filled with ‘normal’ people doing bits and bobs of spying on the side for one lot or another, I was disappointed by the plot. It’s certainly authentic that Downing’s protagonist would be drawn into spying the way he is. But there’s little about it, other than a few nerves. There are no back-alley chases or explosions. There’s certainly many moments of jeopardy, but Downing’s problem is that in these he is never audacious enough to make things go wrong. He forgets that ‘things going wrong’ is essentially what he should be writing about. That’s his job as a storyteller. This novel contains countless instances where Downing is caught in a spot… and then gets out of it before anything bad has happened.

I lost count of the number of times I inched myself forward onto the edge of my seat only to… well, inch my way comfortable again. I wanted to be dropping off the edge of the seat and even standing up in excitement and shock. Didn’t happen.

For the imagery and sensations, the novel works. For the plot, not so much.

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