This is one of the ones that got away, not making it into the City-Lit anthology. And it's in good company, believe me. Nor was that because of the quality of the writing.
Lagerfeuer is Julia Franck's third novel, the one before the award-winning The Blind Side of the Heart. And although both deal with historical subject matter, the two books are very different. Lagerfeuer (Campfire) is set largely in the Mariendorf reception camp for East German refugees, on the edge of West Berlin. A mother and her two children leave the East by pretending she is engaged to a West Berliner, a fairly common practice as far as I'm aware. Snatches of songs on the radio tell us we're in the late 1970s, when Franck herself left East Berlin under similar circumstances as a child.
But rather than the more conventional narration of her later novel, Franck switches perspective in alternating chapters between the mother Nelly, constantly concerned for her children, an older Polish woman come to the West to get medical treatment for her brother, an ambitious CIA man attracted to Nelly, and Hans Pischke, a former dissident incapable of starting a new life outside the camp. Other than that, the prose is of the smooth style Franck's fans know and love.
There is a tense opening chapter as the family escape, Nelly being subjected to all sorts of invasive treatment by the border guards, which I found the best in the book. And after that the characters settle down to wait, and the book does with them. Franck describes the oppressive atmosphere in the camp so well that it weighs down the narrative - rainy days, queues and bureaucracy are the rule, food handed out in small portions, strangers living at close quarters, illicit prostitution and bullying. Almost all the peripheral characters are thoroughly dislikeable, beating their wives and stealing from each other, deliberately negating the notion of victims fleeing from persecution. Many of them seem trapped in the limbo of camp life, arrived in the West but far from the streets of gold they imagined they would find there.
The campfire of the title ensues in the final chapter, and is far removed from a cosy evening of marshmallows on sticks. But despite this denouement of sorts, I personally found that the book sagged a little under its own weight. We don't always need closure, but a tighter plot would have done the book good. I know there are some who say the same of The Blind Side, but I don't agree with them there.
That said, I enjoyed the book and would definitely recommend it to any readers interested in this fascinating aspect of German history. The camp itself is now a museum, where Julia Franck once read from the novel. I'm told the people running the place didn't agree with her very negative depiction.