Continuing to clear the backlog of free Goodreads books I have reviewed (and sticking with last week’s 1980s Berlin theme) here is The Bicycle Teacher by Campbell Jeffreys, available now from Rippple Books (yes, I spelled that correctly).
Michael, a disillusioned Australian mechanic, breaks his family’s cycle of poverty by moving to East Germany, where he finds love and the opportunity to move up in the world. But can it last?
This book isn’t for everyone. Michael’s virulent belief that life is better behind the Iron Curtain may alienate die-hard capitalists, but I found it fascinating. Until now, all the books I read about the USSR featured repressed intellectuals wanting to escape to the West. But looking at things through the eyes of an everyman like Michael, it’s easy to see the appeal of community and guaranteed subsistence, even if it means never achieving wealth or greatness.
Jeffreys cunningly constructs a mirror between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in East/West Germany and East/West Perth, and because Michael is trying not to become a bitter, angry drunk like his father, his experience has a universal appeal.
Jeffreys has a gift for description and has obviously done his research into Cold War era Berlin. His matter-of-fact style and attention to detail makes it easy to picture cities, events, and people. One of my favorite descriptions is: “he had a stringy mustache that seemed to start from deep within his nose.” The only time the descriptions get weighed down by metaphor is when Michael gets maudlin, as the book is written diary-style. For the most part the story stays focused on Michael and his personal experiences, though toward the end it did stray a little further into politics than I usually like to go.
I wanted to like Michael, and for the most part I did. He seems like a real person with good qualities (he works hard, helps his neighbors, loves his family) and bad ones (he’s judgmental, a bit homophobic, and extremely thick when it comes to the machinations of his wife’s cousin). However, I didn’t feel like I really connected with him. The bare-bones writing style told rather than showed his emotions, making him seem a bit cold and distant.
I would recommend The Bicycle Teacher to people who normally read travelogues or memoirs and to anyone who’s interested in hearing about the ‘other side’ of the Cold War (ideologically speaking). It’s a strong effort, so I rate it:
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