Berlin, 1989. Siblings Rune and Lotte are shaken awake by Mama and told to follow her quietly into the night. Last time they snuck away from Papa, with Mama bruised and broken, they were back within a week. But this time they are starting a new life, Mama says—where nobody can ever hurt them again.
Ten years later, the memories of their escape are blurry; Mama is long gone and the siblings are back at Papa’s house. But when they receive a mysterious notebook that seems to have come from Mama, Papa tears it apart. Could there be more to their past than they’ve been led to believe?
With Rune paralysed by fear, Lotte takes their fate into her own hands. When she learns about the ‘Puzzle Women’ working tirelessly to reconstruct files shredded by the former secret police, she begs them to help her piece Mama’s story back together. But as Papa’s threats against both siblings escalate, can they unite to learn the full, brutal truth in Mama’s own words at last?
The Puzzle Women is a dual-time story, set in 1989 at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and ten years later, in 1999. As the story opens, Mama takes her children, Rune and Lotte, and flees her abusive marriage. Ten years later, Mama is gone, the children are back in Papa’s grasp, and their memories are faded. Lotte, the younger of the two, barely remembers anything of Mama, their escape, and what follows. But one day a mysterious notebook arrives. Lotte struggles to read, but she sees enough to know the notebook came from Mama.
“‘Mama!’ That sharp pointy word came at her from the page with soft hands and the voice of songs. It was an all-over feeling. It was a new feeling. It was a feeling of holding on so tight, so as not to be left. Of being still, which was far harder than being quiet. Of quiet being the sound that roars on the inside. Of sucking her thumb and listening to words transformed into the cakes of dreams.“
Papa finds the notebook and destroys it. So when Lotte learns of the “Puzzle Women,” reconstructing files the Stasi had shredded and left behind when the Berlin Wall fell, she determines to be independent and to seek their help. Telling no one where she is going, she sets out on her own with her goal firmly in mind.
Rune, upon learning Lotte is gone, is frantic to find her. He is overwhelmed with guilt for what he thinks he’s done, burdened with fear for what he thinks will happen when his past choices are made known. He fears that nothing but hurt will come from any revelations the Puzzle Women may make from scattered pieces of the past.
“The official line was that the Stasi had ‘disappeared her’ but he’d been there, and it wouldn’t have happened without him. Rune had made her death inevitable, even if he hadn’t killed her himself. How was he ever to explain that to Lotte? He didn’t want to see Lotte’s face when she ran out of the notebook entries. When the reality of death and the beginning of grief began for her. And the questions that began with ‘how?’ started. If Lotte knew what he had done too, would she be able to understand ? He wasn’t asking for forgiveness – he could never forgive himself. But for Lotte to look at him differently, it would destroy him.“
Lotte just wants to remember, wants to know what the notebook says and who Mama was, wants a place where she fits. I adored seeing Lotte’s character develop through the course of the book. Papa made her think she was nothing. But others saw her value, and she began to shine in the warmth of their love and approval.
“‘Why do you like bees so much?’Clio asked. Lotte looked at Sabine, who winked. Sabine knew why. She looked at Pepin, who laughed. She knew why too. It made Lotte happy that her friends understood her. ‘Because,’Lotte explained, ‘they have tiny wings and big fat bodies. They shouldn’t be able to fly and yet they do.’‘So?’‘So, sometimes you can be more than what people think you can be.’‘Exactly,’said Sabine and Roo at the same time.“
The story pulls you along. Tension is constant, as there is always the fear of what Papa will do, where he will turn up, what strings he can pull to bring his family back under his thumb when they dare to think that perhaps they are finally beyond his reach. Ellory turns a wondrous phrase, and her skillful use of language to draw mental images makes the words come alive in the reader’s mind. “He reread the rejection letter; the words felt like bullet holes, fossilised wounds – a constellation of stars, and just as unreachable.” “Lotte felt good, really sunflower-yellow good, and she fell asleep listening to the warming glow of Sabine’s laugh.” “The point he had been trying to make slip-slid off his face and puddled in his belly.” The book is filled with instances like that, where the words you just read make you pause and visualize what the author has said.
This is not necessarily an easy read, especially not for anyone who has suffered abuse. But it is an enthralling read, brutal yet healing, full of harsh reality and sacrificial love. The language is beautiful, and the story is compelling. It is worth your time.
Disclaimer: I received an advance reader copy of this book from NetGalley and Amazon Publishing UK. All opinions here are my own, and I don’t say nice things about books I don’t actually like.