First Sentence: Elena narrowed her eyes against the dazzling sunlight reflected off the sea.
On a vacation in Italy with her sister Margot, Elena Stanford meets Walter Mann and Ian Newton. An immediate attraction causes Elena to go with Ian to Berlin after a message compels him there. A shocking event and a request from Ian sends Elena on to Berlin, and into a danger from which she may not escape.
Perry masterfully sets the stage, lulling one into a sense of elegance, music and possible romance. How effectively she dispels one of that notion. She describes the emotional environment of the time, --"Fifteen years after the war, everyone still had their griefs: loss of someone, something, a hope or an innocence, if not more. And fear of the future."--conveying the almost frenetic gaiety and desperation for emotional connection so well. Perry is such an evocative writer, and her characters are dimensional and interesting, but it's her perspective which causes one to pause, consider and want to share what one has read with others. She also understands pacing; taking one seamlessly from tranquility into the threat of danger.
The story is told from several POVs. One may smile at the timelessness dismissiveness with which the younger generation considers the older one, and of Elena's brother's view of her talent and ambition. Elena's resourcefulness, strength, and determination; a hallmark of Perry's female characters, is impressive even though one may question the suddenness of Elena's decisions.
There is great lyricism to Perry's writing, particularly in her descriptions of nature, yet there is also a touch of pathos. In 1933, one is witnessing the rise of Hitler, Mussolini's move toward fascism. It is somewhat painful to realize how much of the 1930s are reflected in that which is happening today. The book does have a strong historical and political message. While some may object and possibly be offended, others may decide to learn from it –"Hitler is either assuming more power for himself or appointing bloody awful men to do it for him."
It is Perry's description of those who have been in a war and suffer from what we now know as PTSD, and her portrait of the time's events—"The violence is increasing, and the oppression. They're building camps to put prisoners in, not people who've committed crimes, but people who are born guilty of being …" that truly brings to bear the reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
When Perry switches gears, it is sudden, surprising, and very effective. She triggers our suspicions and then makes us question them.
The plot isn't perfect. There are points of repetitiveness, a lack of focus, and what feels to be plot holes. The female characters are occasionally too trusting, but that's part of the plot. On the other hand, there is excellent suspense and a very effective sense of danger. One has a real sense of the fear people experienced during this time. Elena's determination to photograph the events she witnesses, and then to keep the film safe, were a strong element one hope to see continued. One must give Perry credit for making this time in Berlin painfully real and for teaching us details of history we've not known.
"Death in Focus" is a somewhat painful, but highly relevant read. It does contain a well-done red herring, and a wicked twist leading to a very good ending.
DEATH IN FOCUS (HistSusp-Elana Stanford-Europe-1933) – G+
Perry, Anne – 1st in series
Ballantine Books – Sept 2019