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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Compelling Story of Love and Deception, 21 May 2012
By 
Susie B - See all my reviews
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"In the East of Germany, in the valley of the Elbe, lies the capital of Saxony. In the days of the GDR, it was the only part of the country where it was impossible to receive western television. East Germans called it the Valley of Unknowing."

Set in the German Democratic Republic in the 1980s, Philip Sington's novel is the story of Bruno Krug, a middle-aged author, suffering from writer's block and living off the reputation of his acclaimed book: 'The Orphans of Neustadt'; a novel that has won him prizes and public recognition, but is proving a very tough act to follow. His friend and editor, Michael Schilling, continues to encourage Bruno in his efforts to produce a new book but, knowing that nothing is immediately forthcoming, he asks Bruno to read the manuscript of an untitled novel that has been given to him by a new author.

Bruno is curious and takes the manuscript home to read, but when he discovers that the novel is by a young screenwriter, Wolfgang Richter, a man who has ridiculed him in the past, Bruno is unsettled. And when Bruno has finished reading the manuscript he is even more unsettled, for not only is the novel extremely good but Richter has managed to write the sequel to Bruno's 'Orphans' that Bruno has been incapable of writing himself. Added to this, Bruno's dislike of Richter is further increased when he sees him in the company of the beautiful Theresa, a viola player from the West who is studying in the East, and a woman Bruno is very attracted to and has been trying to get to know better. Therefore when Bruno receives a visit from a certain Herr Andrich and Herr Zoch, describing themselves as employees of the city council, but most probably members of the Stasi, asking him some awkward questions, Bruno has no real qualms in directing their attention away from him and onto Richter, by hinting that Richter has written a novel that could have dangerous undertones. And what happens next has serious and life-changing consequences for Richter, Theresa, Bruno, and for many of those around them.

Philip Sington's novel is a compelling story of love, jealousy, deception, betrayal, and fear. I found 'The Valley of Unknowing' an intriguing, involving and almost claustrophobic read and the last section, involving the attempted defection of one of the characters, kept me up until the early hours until I knew the outcome. I have not read any of Sington's previous novels, but my enjoyment of this one has made me keen to discover what else he has written and I shall certainly be looking out for his next novel.

4 Stars.

P.S. Do watch the Amazon video for this novel - it's both very amusing and moving and it encouraged me to buy the book.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Challenging genres, 10 May 2012
By 
David Chaney (newcastle upon tyne uk) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Valley of Unknowing (Hardcover)
It is difficult to find a title for this review as the book does not fall into a neat genre category. A study of life in East Germany shortly before the regime collapsed it uses a German historical setting (as the author has done in his previous work) to explore the relationship of a writer to public setting in which they are rewarded and feted, the extent to which an author is the 'sole' producer of their work and the meaning of identity in settings where little is to be trusted. And the book is an account of a passionate but unstable relationship between an older man and a younger woman. Describing these themes in this way might suggest that it is a dry or overly intellectual work but that would be misleading as I nearly labelled the book a thriller. One is caught up in the unfolding narrative as you are never quite sure which of the fictions that are in play is going to unravel, one is also seduced by the skillful way in which extensive research is unobtrusively deployed. The book is not a thriller in any conventional sense but it is perhaps better described as an exercise in noir fiction that is enthralling and deeply engaging.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nom de plume Nom de Plumber, 29 Sep 2012
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The DDR is a rich source for satire and irony. The author has tapped it well. He tells the tale of a love triangle : novelist- cum- plumber, Bruno Krug, a struggling musician, Theresa Aden, and a flamboyant scriptwriter Wolfgang Richter. There is a novel at the centre of their relationship, a novel entitled in one its guises "The Valley of the Unknowing", a novel that proves to be emotonal and political dynamite. It is very, very funny - most of the humour coming from Bruno Krug, whose plumbing skills find plenty of scope in the dodgy pipes of East Germany, and introduce us to the ordinary people struggling to get by in the "valley", the term for the city he lives in as well. With love there is the necessary note of sadness and heartbreak to make this more than just a comedy. Sington captures well the frustrations of life in the Workers' and Peasants' State under Actually Existing Socialism. He also details the problems of Republikflucht [escaping to the west]. Of course, in reality, there was an awful lot more pain than hilarity as Sington acknowledges between the lines and especially in the final chapters. The novel has a colourful cast from the main players to the walk-ons. In Bruno Krug Philip Sington has created a character that one really would quite like to be.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars First-rate thriller set in the republic of Actually Achieved Socialism, 5 Jun 2012
This review is from: The Valley of Unknowing (Hardcover)
In some ways this novel is like those of John le Carre before he became self-righteous: tense, rich in revealing detail, asking significant questions about politics and human motivation. Philip Sington's tense thriller is set in the last years of the German Democratic Republic, the country proclaimed as the land of "Actually Achieved Socialism". The book's title comes from the unofficial name for those areas of East Germany where it is impossible to get TV reception and so their inhabitants know neither the 'truth' as presented by either east or west Germany.The plot concerns an east German author, Bruno Krug, whose early literary efforts have made him lionized by the communist cultural authorities. Now suffering from writer's block and disillussionment, he is given a manuscript of a novel by a young, insolent, author, which not only mocks Krugs' work, but is also certain to anger the authorities. The unpublished novel is also verty good, but its author is soon dead. Krug gradually claims identity as the manuscript's author and uses his budding romance with a young west German student as a means to smuggle the book out of the country and to make money. Sington subtly uses the themes of authorial identity, conscience deception and betrayal to background a convincing set of characters, especially Bruno - a womaniser, part-time plumber, constantly nervous and uncertain as his plans for the manuscript drag him into increasingly dangerous waters. Thought-provoking, exciting and also surprisingly funny in parts.
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5.0 out of 5 stars One of the most convincing novels about life in the German Democratic Republic, 31 Oct 2014
By 
Dr R (Norwich, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Valley of Unknowing (Hardcover)
This is an excellent read but its enjoyment will be greater for people having visited the late unlamented German Democratic Republic, `the Workers' and Peasants' State'. Praise for the detail must be shared between the author, his wife who grew up in the country and her family's recollections and Stasi files.

The narrator is Bruno Krug who, as a result of writing `The Orphans of Neustadt' years ago, is now lauded as a `People's Champion of Art and Culture'. Unfortunately he has written nothing of significance since [`twenty years of mediocrity'] and now works as a plumber. He lacks the ability or determination to publish a sequel and so is shocked when he is given the untitled draft of such a book by Wolfgang Richter, a young screenwriter best known for his film `Two on a Bicycle', `a mildly satirical farce set on a collective farm'. Krug immediately sees the significance of the manuscript and his jealousy towards Richter is increased when he sees him with an Austrian viola player, Theresa Aden, to whom he is attracted.

This is the mid-1980s so we are regaled with informers, Stasi members, queues, dingy shops, pollution, ruined buildings, indistinct pre-war advertisements on derelict buildings and dispirited people. This is where experience of the country reinforces Sington's/Krug's writing. However, it also shows people determined to subvert the centrally-imposed bureaucratic and political system to achieve their personal and social aims. Frau Wiegmann one such, having led a project to rebuild a swimming pool, lying in ruins for 40 years, that is always delayed by unforeseen circumstances - [She] `battled on like a true socialist heroine: exhorting her followers with visions of the promised land, banished despair and crushing dissent with her indefatigable energy, enormous bosom and complete absence of self-doubt.'

Fortunately for Krug, Richter dies in unexplained circumstances and the novel describes the relationship between Krug and Aden, the fate of Richter's manuscript and contrasts the publishing worlds and societies in East and West Germany. We learn in a Foreword that Krug wrote the book, in English, in exile in Ireland and it was published through the efforts of a Dublin journalist. This presumably explains the rather stilted language.

Time and again, Sington mentions something that took me back three decades and set in train long forgotten memories - the Tutti Frutti Eiscafé with its impressive looking coffee machine, but no coffee, and just three flavours of ice cream; the black market economy; the disappearance of commodities such as toothpaste from shops; the state informers and members of the Stasi [`one of whom `smoked only Sprachlos, the local brand, a name which in English means "speechless" (branding was not an advanced science in the Workers' and Peasants' Republic).'] and the drabness of the environment [`To autumnal mists we added gritty miasmas, the one indistinguishable from the other, except for the carboniferous taste. The sky above - yellow, russet, dusty pink, depending on the time of day - had a persistent autumnal tinge, its colours mixed by the same celestial hand on the same celestial palette.'].

Krug, the fighter for freedom, hypocrite, refugee, traitor, at the centre of the novel, is adept at justifying his behavior towards his friends and colleagues, and is a vivid but unlikable character. However, I retained sympathy for his predicament, remembering East Germans from the past. Sington writes beautifully about Krug's early days and the deep effect that his mother's death/disappearance/rejection had on him. He lacks the courage to write a sequel to his earlier novel, knowing that this will attract the attention of the authorities and remove his last links with those with power and influence.

Although not a conventional thriller, the tension builds to a conclusion that is an excellent resolution of a plot that impresses by its incremental development. Ultimately the author succeeds in writing a novel about life in East Germany that blends humour and tragedy in equal parts but does not undercut its characters with sentimentality, melodrama or post-1989 political and social analyses. It reminds us that, in this worker's paradise, `deceit was dangerous, but the truth was suicidal.'

The book exerts a subliminal message through its typeface, Drescher Grotesk [very appropriate] and Excelsior, `commonly used typefaces in East Germany featuring in publications ranging from children's books and high-profile Communist publications to the humble Trabant car repair manual.' This attention to detail is consistent with the overall quality of the book. Highly recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Life in East Germany, 16 May 2013
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Excellent novel. Really get a feel of what life must have been like in the days of Honecke and the Stasi. Totally believable characters. A really good read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars `Deceit was dangerous, but the truth was suicidal.', 31 Aug 2012
By 
L. H. Healy "Books are life, beauty and truth." (Cambridgeshire, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Valley of Unknowing (Hardcover)
Bruno Krug is a writer in East Germany. He is principally known for his novel entitled The Orphans of Neustadt, as well as for his Factory Gate Fables, which portray the country's working masses. The Valley of Unknowing begins with a discovery by a young journalist in Ireland. Then we are taken into a manuscript produced by Krug, which is now in the hands of this journalist. In this work, Krug recalls the momentous events that shaped his final years in his homeland. He is given an anonymous manuscript to read by his editor Michael Schilling. As he reads it, he discovers that it is brilliant, but that it seems to almost be a sequel to his own very famous work. On discovering that the author is in fact Wolfgang Richter, a younger fellow author, he feels a multitude of emotions. Bruno meets a young musician, Theresa Eden, and an initial longing grows to become something more serious. The relationship will shape the rest of his life.

I love fiction based in Germany, and in particular I find it fascinating to read stories that are based in the former German Democratic Republic. For me, this novel felt authentic and it did not disappoint. The plot is intriguing. The world the author creates is believable. He convincingly brings to life the atmosphere of the state: the secrecy, the fear of being watched and spied upon, needing to take care in your actions. Also the determined people who would keep struggling to try and achieve things, despite shortages of funds or goods - witness Frau Wiegmann and her persistence in trying to get the swimming pool reopened; she `battled on like a true socialist heroine: exhorting her followers with visions of the promised land, banishing despair and crushing dissent with her indefatigable energy.' Similarly, Bruno's persistant yet fruitless pursuit of some toothpaste. And transactions would take place that were never quite openly declared or expressed, just understood enough between those involved.

I enjoyed the comments on the craft of writing fiction that the author was able to express through Bruno's voice, and further the thoughts on the nature of artistry and creativity under `Actually Existing Socialism' as opposed to the Western world of which the view is that `cash was king and the customer was always right.' Bruno observes `how could an artist remain true to his own vision - in effect honest - if he allowed his idea of beauty to be dictated by others? This indifference to Western opinion played well with my ideological overseers, who took it as indicative of loyalty. The truth is that I was afraid of what I might hear.'

One of my favourite passages from the novel involves Bruno's thoughts which are provoked by Gruna Willy, a man reputed to have once been a border guard, now somewhat of a vagrant wondering the streets. Bruno ponders, `To rehearse imaginary conversations on paper is called literature. To do so out loud is called madness.'

Bruno is an interesting, flawed character, this writer and sometime plumber. I could imagine Bruno walking the streets of his town in the GDR, as he often did when his mind was troubled. I accompanied him as he went to the concerts in which Theresa played her viola. The evolving emotions that Bruno feels towards Theresa, and the way in which he gradually comes to a deeper understanding of Richter, is fascinating to read. As Bruno is writing his account in the first person, I really felt his conflicting feelings and his struggles over the best course of action, his fears and anxieties. What would happen, I wondered? The author successfully builds suspense in the storyline as the novel slowly progresses; in one sense I didn't find this a fast-paced read, yet I was always intrigued, always interested in what would happen next, and what fate was in store for Bruno and Theresa. I was enthralled to discover how the decisions Bruno makes would ultimately affect his life.

This is a compelling story of love, risk, writing, fear and betrayal, courage and deception. Philip Sington has drawn on the insights and memories of his wife and her family, who resided in the former GDR, to create a credible, distinctive novel. This author is new to me, but I will look to read his previous novel The Einstein Girl now.

4.5 stars
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars extraordinarily evocative, 3 July 2014
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A beautifully written tale with some wonderful passages which give an idea of the horrors of living under Marxism. Some of the descriptions of seasonal changes and their effect on the landscape are like receiving a punch to the midriff.
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The Valley of Unknowing
The Valley of Unknowing by Philip Sington (Hardcover - 5 April 2012)
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