The History of History – Ida Hattemer-Higgins

Five words from the blurb: Berlin, Nazi, ghosts, flesh,  grief

The History of History is an outstanding piece of writing. It is original, moving and thought-provoking. I think it will scoop a host of literary awards this year and I hope you’ll read the rest of this review and decide to give it a try.

The History of History is set in Berlin. The central character, Margaret, is a tour guide in the city and so we learn all about the history of Berlin and its buildings through her. That makes it sound a bit dull, but it isn’t. This book is packed with quirky details that make the city come to life and I learnt an incredible amount about Berlin, especially its uses during WWII.

The primary focus of the book is suicide. The bombing raids and trench fighting of war have been covered in books many times before, but this is the first time I’ve read something which investigates these quiet, almost forgotten deaths. The tragic stories include that of a Jewish family, those who were close to Hitler at the end of the war and also the traumatic decision of mothers to murder their own children. Many parts of the book are devastatingly sad, but the book as a whole manages to avoid being overly tragic as the mood of the text is lifted at regular intervals.

I’m in love in the way I thought only thirteen-year-olds could be and I haven’t felt anything close to it for such a long time and the terrible thing is that I don’t think he loves me back. It’s ridiculous, this kind of full-blown sweet torture, that poets know so well and is so utterly ridiculous, where one vacillates between intense ecstasy and intense agony throughout the day, because one feels as if one were walking a tightrope where falling one way will mean waves of joy unknown to humankind and falling the other will mean the darkest hell. Your mood depends on which possibility you take most seriously at the time. Meanwhile, you attempt to stay on the tightrope, because that way you preserve a chance at the ultimate beauty.

Ida Hattemer-Higgins lived in Japan for a few years and the Japanese influence has clearly entered her work. Be prepared for anything to happen in this book, but don’t be worried because the author makes even the strangest things believable. There are points when the buildings of Berlin turn to flesh and Nazi ghosts haunt Margaret, but somehow it never seems ridiculous.

The book isn’t perfect. There is so much going on that it occasionally fails to merge the scenes together seamlessly, but I’m willing to overlook these minor teething issues as I’m sure that in a few months time I’ll have forgotten about any tiny problems I may have had with this book and only remember the vivid scenes.

The History of History is very well researched and if you have any interest in the way WWII affected different groups of people then this is for you.

I’m sure this will be one of my favourite reads in 2011.

Highly recommended. 

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  1. ifi says:

    Yes Jackie, you were right… another book I would love to read. Sounds VERY original. But… I shall stick to my guns and NOT buy anything till April rolls around!! It will go on my wish list though (ha ha ha, you didn´t think I was going to paint myself into a corner)

    1. Jackie says:

      Ifi, Good luck sticking to your book buying ban! I will do my best to tempt you out of it (or at the very least leave you with a long wish list) ;-)

  2. Sandy says:

    You always do this to me! You KNOW I can’t turn my back on this one. In the movie Downfall, it shows the wife of one of Hitler’s leaders giving her children cyanide pills in their sleep, when they know that Berlin is falling. It is devastating, but it happened. I’m off now to see if my library has this one.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I vaguely knew that all these suicides had occured, but had never read about them before – it makes it more real and devasting. I am sure that you will love this book. I hope your library has a copy.

    2. Annabel says:

      When I watched Downfall that scene made me sob uncontrollably. This book sounds like I must read it.

      1. Jackie says:

        I haven’t seen Downfall yet. It is in my rental queue so hopefully I’ll get to it soon.

  3. lizzysiddal says:

    Am delighted that this is such a hit! I have it in the TBR and will now get to it sooner rather than later.

    1. Jackie says:

      Lizzysiddal, I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did.

  4. parrish says:

    I worked in Berlin in the early 90’s, and since then the place holds a fascination for me, so apart from the literary merits of this book which also sound good, this appeals.

    1. Jackie says:

      parrish, I have never been to Berlin, but I suspect that a personal knowledge of the city would make this even more interesting. I hope that you like it if you decide to give it a try.

  5. Amy says:

    Sounds like a great book – I’m not sure I’ve read anything set in Berlin before, and the historical facts part of the book certainly intrigues me. I’ll have to check it out at some point.

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, There is so much historical detail that this book could almost be classified as historical fiction. The strange happenings prevent this classification though – this book defies genre classification :-)

  6. Steph says:

    When I visited Berlin back in 2005 with a friend, we were immediately a bit scared of the city because it and its people seemed so cold and intimidating. The day after our arrival, we signed up for a three-hour walking tour, and that changed everything. I loved learning about all of the history that Berlin has seen and weathered and it wound up being one of the most interesting places we visited on that trip! This book sounds like it would bring back a lot of great memories for me!

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, The author used to work as a tour guide in Berlin so perhaps you even had her as a tour guide – that would be a great thing to know if you were then to read the book! When I get to go to Berlin I’ll ensure I take a tour – it would be great to see all the places mentioned. I’m sure that this book will be even better if you already had all the buildings in your head. I hope you get to read it sometime.

  7. Brenna says:

    Wow this sounds fascinating. I’m a big fan of learning all about the WWII era.

    1. Jackie says:

      Brenna, It is great to hear that you like the sound of it :-)

  8. The way you describe this, the book sounds very interesting. I’m not really keen to read about WWII, although I seem to end up with such books regularly anyway. :-)

    I’ll certainly keep this book in mind.

    1. Jackie says:

      Judith, I always find I’m reading books about WWII too. I don’t seek them out, but they are everywhere! It means that they have to do even more to stand out from the crowd. This one does that easily :-)

  9. Tracey says:

    I’m sold Jackie! I have this romantic notion of Berlin and the WWII history part of this book sounds too appealing not to try. I’m going to look out for it. Glad you enjoyed it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Tracey, Great news! I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did.

  10. stujallen says:

    I ve spent time in Berlin and this does sound wonderful ,my favourite film is wim wenders der himmell uber berlin a ode to the city ,a city full of life art and stories ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, I haven’t heard of that film before, but I do have a soft spot for German films so I’ll look it up – thanks for the recommendation!

  11. Jenny says:

    A story about a Berlin tour guide during World War II sounds the opposite of boring. I love it when books explore different jobs, especially something like tour-guiding, which sounds fun but I probably would never really do it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, Sorry for confusion – she is a tour guide in modern times (not during WWII) but she shows people the buildings that were used for important aspects of the war.

      I don’t think I could ever be a tour guide either, but I’m sure they have lots of great stories to tell!

  12. Sounds like a tough, but worthwhile read.

    1. Jackie says:

      Diane, The book flows quite nicely and so never feels like an effort to read, but there are few distubing scenes which some might not like. I certainly think it is worthwhile so I hope you decide to pick it up.

  13. Sakura says:

    I’m intrigued! This sounds like a very interesting book. Although I’ve yet to visit Berlin, I would love to learn more of its history.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sakura, Berlin has a very rich history – I look forward to visiting it one day :-)

  14. Lulu says:

    I have just finished this magical book. It is probably the best fiction work I have read in 10 years.

    1. Jackie says:

      Lulu, Yay!! I’m so pleased that someone else has discovered how wonderful this book is. It is growing on me even more with time. It could well be my book of the year.

  15. bradford says:

    The novel is unique in the power of its words, the hallucinations these provoke, the queasiness which begins to insinuates itself into the reader’s mind and emotions. I found it difficult to read but was unable to close the covers. (I admit to a fascination with the history of National Socialism in Germany … Should reading the book make one ashamed of this interest ? The facts of the regime 60 years afterwards read like baroque fiction. Can all of those horrors truly have occurred ? Yes, fact is stranger than fiction.)


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