This book was an easy read, but I can’t say it was particularly impressive. It tells the story of Ellie, an all-American (and Jewish) schoolgirl who goes to Berlin on a school trip, touches the string of a red balloon, and finds herself instantly transported back in time to the eastern side of the city in 1988. She finds out that the red balloons are part of a long-term people smuggling operation: a clandestine magical organisation exists which creates these balloons to transport people out of dangerous places. With no obvious way to return home, she crashes in an organisational safe house with two other young people, immediately throws herself into a corny and unnecessary romance with one of them, and then gets caught up investigating a string of red-balloon-related murders.
While the bulk of the book takes place in 1988, there are also a number of chapters set 45 years earlier, where a Jewish boy relays his experience living through the Holocaust. These chapters were naturally pretty grim, but I also felt that they were by far the best part of the book. The Nazis' cruelty was viscerally clear, but we also saw people striving to resist: admiring the resistance put up by other ghettos, covertly practising their faith, communicating illegally with people outside the ghetto. This plotline could not fail to be tragic, but it was heartfelt and powerful.
Unfortunately I cannot say anything similar for the East Berlin chapters, at least not in regards to how they depicted their setting. In these, there is a lot of editorialising to keep reminding the reader that East Germany is a horrible, oppressive police state while the West is a beacon of freedom. It’s an irritatingly trite take, and the book would have been better served by leaving those remarks out and just showing us what East Germany was like, you know, through the story. What did come across in the story felt like a more nuanced take, if still a bit surface-level in some respects – but perhaps that’s to be expected when both POV characters in 1988 are outsiders to the country.
I thought Ellie, the protagonist, was pretty annoying. She has a really interesting plot thread to do with her Jewish faith and her family history (her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, did not want her to go to Germany in the first place)… but it’s also her POV chapters doing the bulk of the “Americans good, East Germans bad” thing. Kai and Mitzi, the other members of the trio, were much more likeable as far as I was concerned. All the other 1988 characters felt kind of generic, and the denouement lacked impact as a result. (I also thought it was unnecessary to have a whoooole thing stressing to the reader that Nazis are really, super evil, like you could have read the book up to that point and not got that.)
Despite this review being mostly negative, I did enjoy reading the book overall. The story moves along well, the prose is pleasant to read, there were a bunch of interesting passages, and I enjoyed the whole story thread about Ellie’s heritage. I think I feel particularly frustrated because it was an idea with a lot of potential, but some fundamental mistakes (like the extraneous romance subplot and the simplistic depiction of East Berlin) really let it down.