Reviewed By Ryan Jansen
Inspired by Otto Freundlich’s painting “My Red Heaven,” the novel My Red Heaven is a work of Literary Fiction set in Berlin, Germany across a single day in 1927. This novel takes you on a wild exploration of an Interwar Germany with teeming famous artists and historical figures such as Rosa Luxemburg, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Kathe Kollwitz, Werner Heisenberg, Vladimir Nabokov, Robert Musil and Otto Dix to name just a few of the many people who make appearances. But one of the most eye-catching features of the novel is how it includes not only stories that attach these people to their importance in history, but how it also uses creative storytelling with these figures, placing them alongside fictional characters in a way that captures the tension of how the world was in 1927 Germany.
What really drives the story along, and lends the novel its structure, is the way Olsen links the artists and historical figures. Seeing Kathe Kollwitz reflect on her life, or Billie Wilder talk about the beauty and history of art is something that caters nicely to anyone who enjoy history, or if you are like me, and are learning about most of these people for the first time will fall into their importance in this era and how they all will all tie together in this story, which is something you will be guessing throughout the novel.
Although is it very rich with the history and great storytelling of how these characters—real and fictional—intersect, you will have to follow along closely as there are many different stories and people to track throughout the novel. Even though I had to reread a few times it is worth it to be able to follow along with each person’s story and place within this day. Also, for me to fully understand the importance of the story it was worth a second read in some areas, as well as some research on some of the historical people, but it’s only my recommendation if you want to understand what the stories are saying.
However, My Red Heaven is a lot more than just one big history read on the Weimar Republic. Olsen does include some fictional stories that kept me refreshed and interested to see how he was going to intertwine these imagined characters with some of the most important people in history. He also incorporates flash forwards, contextualizing the lives of his fictional characters, which as someone who got lost at times I appreciated a lot. The stories are well plotted, and I sometimes thought they were real people; you can get a good idea of how the world was in that period of time.
Olsen takes an experimental approach throughout the novel, using various styles and conventions such as screenwriting, prose, and poetry, along with period-specific forms like the newsreel propaganda clips that helped grow fascism in Germany during this period. As I said this novel is not something to read if you are looking for a casual read or something to pick up and put down for later. It requires you full attention and might require some additional effort on the part of the reader to understand what is on the pages. Which I think it the best element of this story, though it might turn away some readers. But if something this unique doesn’t grab your attention what will?
Overall the novel tells a very detailed story that captures the tension of 1927 Germany, along with adding its own unique but rich storytelling that will keep you enthralled throughout the book. It is not what I would call an easy read, but through its experimental form and vast roster of characters, My Red Heaven pulls back the curtain on the Weimar Republic, showing how close the entire world came to falling into something evil. In addition, Olsen’s style is something that I have never seen before, and something if you are looking to challenge yourself with trying something new I would highly recommend due to its creative storytelling and descriptions.