Ronald H. Balson’s Trip to Tuscany
The story of the evil corporation trying to buy away homeowners and kicking them out of their homes is about as old as corporations themselves. Stemming majorly from our fear of what might come in an ultra-capitalistic society, these stories have a strange way of resonating with us, and I would venture to say this is the modern David versus Goliath archetype. While most authors would approach this scenario with obvious intentions in mind, there are those out there who found a way to give what is now an old fable a greater deal of nuance… authors such as Ronald H. Balson in his latest Liam Taggart and Catherine Lockhart book titled The Girl from Berlin.
The story opens with an old friend beckoning our two protagonists for help from his famous Italian restaurant. As it happens, his aunt resides in a Tuscan villa and is under threat of being evicted by a large and powerful corporation who have deeds to the land. The problem? The aunt herself also has a set of deeds to the land. Their conscience and intrigue moved, Catherine and Liam take on the case, so to speak, and begin digging into the aunt’s past with the help of a bound handwritten manuscript, their only clue. The story they embark on takes them all the way back to 1918 Germany when the aunt was born under the name Ava Baumgarten, and continues all the way through the Second World War (a subject he also treated in his previous book we’ve reviewed) and up until the present day, detailing a life mired in both tragedy and hope in equal measures… and perhaps one with a story still to be told.
A Trek Through Dark History
To begin with, this novel basically has two interconnected stories going on, one set in the 1930s, related to us via Ada’s manuscript, and the second one in the modern day as Catherine and Liam try to untangle the web of mystery surrounding the deeds to the villa. In my opinion, the first story taking place in the past is given a good deal of focus more than the modern one, which was a bit surprising considering it forced Catherine and Liam to take a backseat unlike in previous novels. While I would have definitely loved to see a greater participation from them in this novel rather than spending most of their time being vehicles to recount Ada’s life, I think it was an interesting decision to make which also yielded some good results.
Namely, we take an extremely well-researched trek through Italian history, complete with some of the most defining events of the century such as the Holocaust. It really shows how Balson sank in countless hours to flip through the pages of historical books and documents for the singular purpose of depicting these events in a more believable manner. The amount of small and curious details he includes in his descriptions elevate them far above the average level as they take on the peculiar quality of being able to drag the reader into the story. The best way I could explain it is: when some authors describe things, you imagine them… when Balson describes things, you experience them. This significantly strong point of the story helps to maintain our interest even during the slower moments of the book, and having gone through it I can scarcely remember any boring moments.
Of Deeds and Corporations
While a large part of the story does revolve around Ada Baumgarten’s unexpectedly violent and up-heaved life, Catherine and her husband still have their own objective to accomplish. While it does show Balson dedicated less time and effort to crafting the intrigue around the deeds to the villa and the powerful corporation trying to take over, I found this aspect of the plot still retained some of his charm. There is a bit of mystery in the air as we are left to wonder how exactly two sets of deeds were produced for the same villa and who in the end will win the struggle between aunt and corporation. The whole tone of the story makes it feel as if a bad resolution is just as likely, because after all, this is the real world where real bad things happen, and all too often no one is made to answer for them.
One element which I believe helped drive the main story forward were the various characters involved. While we were already acquainted with Liam and Catherine, this fifth book in the series gives us yet again a bit more insight into the kind of people they are and what they truly value in life. We may not learn anything outstanding about them, but with each outing their human portrait inches closer to completion. I found the villains of the story were particularly well-written, whether discussing the Holocaust or the corporation. Balson knows how to draw out the reader’s ire towards fellow human beings without ever going over-the-top into unbelievable territory. If anything, we get the sense he based his depictions off of real people.
The Final Verdict
To conclude, The Girl from Berlin by Ronald H. Balson is a profoundly-touching and strongly engaging work of historical investigation/mystery told through two fascinating storylines. If this is the sort of genre you feel drawn to, then I can safely say you are going to have a field day with this novel, and this regardless of whether you’re new to the series or not.
Ronald H. Balson primarily considers himself as an attorney with the firm Stone, Pogrund and Korey, operating in the Chicago area. His many cases have taken him across the U.S. as well as on the international scene, and he even became an author when he wrote his widely-acclaimed book, Once We Were Brothers