Award-winning journalist Kati Marton set out on a wrenching personal journey to uncover the truth about her parents during her childhood in Cold War Budapest. She exposes the cruel mechanics of the communist state using the secret police files on her parents as well as dozens of interviews that reveal how her family was spied on and betrayed by friends, colleagues, and even their children's babysitter. She learned details of her parents' love affairs and the full nightmare of her parents' incarceration in a communist prison.
Marton relates her own eyewitness account of her mother's and father's arrests and the terrible separation that followed. There were things she didn't want to know about and disappointments she didn't want to revisit. But as she dug deeper into their lives, she found the truth about her parents' lives - and her own.
The cloak-and-dagger life of "the last foreign correspondents in Hungary", the author’s Jewish-Hungarian parents, is recounted here with all the pacing and dark urgency of a spy thriller. But it is anchored to a wealth of research that lays out the iniquities of life under the communist regime, a life of pointless cruelty and false confessions obtained under duress, where people regularly "disappear through the trapdoor of the political stage". It is also a society saturated with surveillance: after being warned that she is opening a Pandora’s Box by sorting through the files of the AVO, Hungary’s secret police, Kati Marton discovers that everyone down to the children's French nanny reported on her defiantly Westernized parents.
Despite the deeply personal subject matter, the author never veers into sentimentality or hero-worship. There is deep respect and love for her American correspondent parents, but no attempt to explain or condone their reckless flaunting of communist rules. This is where Laurel Merlington’s narration comes into its own. While Marton is scrupulously careful in connecting the personal to the political and withholds judgement in the face of so many acts of betrayal, Merlington’s voice is of someone recovering from a broken heart. She beautifully conveys a sense of loss at being faced with the previously unknown heroism and suffering of her recently dead parents. Always dignified, her measured tone can't hide the turmoil of a child orphaned by the state and the adult Marton’s sense of helplessness in recollecting her pain and confusion as a child.
So the act of historical research becomes a series of revelations about her family, and Marton becomes the latest in a long line to spy on her parents. Some of the more heart-stopping moments are to do with the daughter's discoveries about her parents' inner lives, and in particular that of her father. In life, his formal reserve and dashing appeal gave him all the mystery of an unreachable double agent, but through his daughter’s investigation of his imprisonment and torture, he becomes closer to her than ever before: "So now I know if my father did not express his feelings for us it was because they were too strong, not too weak. How ironic that the deepest proof of his love for us was provided by an AVO informer." In delivering this line, and many others hidden like landlines amongst secret state documents, Laurel Merlington is the perfect choice to narrate this tale. Dafydd Phillips
"A true story that is deeply moving and altogether amazing. It is a mystery story, a love story, and a walk through history." (Barbara Walters)
"Marton's story...is one of bravery, suffering, survival and vindication. She tells it in straightforward, lucid prose...and with her emotions well under control." (The Washington Post)
"A powerful and absolutely absorbing narrative." (The New York Times)
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