Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 

The Glimmer Palace, by Beatrice Colin.  Riverhead Books (2008), 414 pages.

This novel takes place in cabaret-era Berlin and involves the birth of cinema—two topics that, for no good reason at all, I find strangely dull and uneventful.  But since I was trapped on an airplane with no other reading material, and since the main character is an orphan (I can’t resist a good orphan story), I stuck with it.  I’m glad I did, but it was a mixed experience.

The book has several things to recommend it.  Firstly, Colin is a very good writer.  Her descriptions of the suffering the residents of Berlin lived through during World War I are particularly well done.  She also writes very well about the Weimar Republic, bringing it to life in a way that is strikingly different from most of the dryly written history I come across about that period.

Unfortunately, the author does not do nearly as well with her characters. Almost every one of them is badly underdeveloped, including the heroine.  I finished the book feeling as though I don’t know these people at all.  I don’t know what they were thinking or why they took the actions they did.  Drastic, life-changing decisions were made in practically every chapter by every character and I still have no idea why.

The Glimmer Palace almost reads like two separate books: a history of Berlin from the turn of the century through World War II, which I highly recommend, and a piece of fiction that I would suggest shows promise, but needs much more work before being published.

The cart horse swayed and then sank forward to its knees…and then with a small moan, a letting out of breath, of steam, of life, it slumped and collapsed into a heap of angular bone and sagging skin.

Lilly wasn’t the only one standing on Mariannenplatz who was watching.  No sooner had the horse’s head hit the cobbles than a dozen women appeared from doorways and alleyways armed with knives and bowls and cups…they began to butcher the carcass, sawing through bone and slicing through veins to let the spurt of warm blood flow into their bowls.  One woman, her face splattered with red, tried to hack off a ragged haunch with a penknife; another pulled out the tongue.  In minutes, what was left of the horse would vanish completely.  Lilly pushed to the front.  All she eaten for months was turnip—raw turnip, since there was rarely any coal to be had.  She looked down at the skin and bone that remained and tried to convert it in her mind into something edible…