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Dark Mermaids

Anne Lauppe-Dunbar
Publication Date: 
Thursday, September 17, 2015
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Shortlisted for the Cross Sports Book Awards, New Writer of the Year 2016
Shortlisted for the Rubery Book Award, Fiction Category 2017


‘Lauppe-Dunbar marshals the facts of history deftly, and devastatingly, into her fictional characterscape. Her narrative is unflinching and darkly sensual’ – Planet


Dark Mermaids, by Anne Lauppe-Dunbar, is a shocking story of the horrors of a political system that doped its youngsters to sporting superhero status, and then left them to fend for themselves.

Shortlisted for the Impress and Cinnamon First Novel Prize, this East German noir thriller is set in 1990, a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Unhappy West Berlin police officer Sophia is called on to investigate the murder of her childhood friend Käthe, after her beaten body is discovered in Sophia’s local park. Sophia is forced to return to the hometown she fled as a teenager with her enigmatic father Petrus, and Mia – a frightened child who turned up on her doorstep. She must investigate Käthe’s murder and care for a mother she believed abandoned her. As she reluctantly delves into the sordid Stasi secrets of those she grew up with, Sophia uncovers a web of horrors about her own abusive past as a child-swimming star in the former GDR. But her hunt for the truth has not gone unnoticed by those close to her, people who still have too much to hide.

Anne Lauppe Dunbar is a creative writing tutor at Swansea University, where she also studied for her PhD. She had a short story published in Sing Sorrow Sorrow (ed Gwen Davies, Seren) and has had stories, essays, papers and poems published with Cinnamon Press, Seventh Quarry and New Welsh Review.

She says: ‘I wrote Dark Mermaids as my refugee mother’s daughter: a child of the GDR who fled westwards carrying arcane knowledge of a country in which secrets and lies were endemic.’ In writing the novel Anne has extensively researched what is known of athletes doping and training in the area of East Germany she writes about.


Review by Mike Parker, Planet

Monday, November 7, 2016

To take second place in the Olympics medal table is some major achievement, as an increasingly hysterical ‘Team GB’ media reminded us throughout this summer’s games. If it’s good going for a country of sixty million, it is extraordinary for one of seventeen, the size of the Netherlands or Guatemala. Yet in the 1970s and ’80s, this was the story of East Germany, der DDR, a nation that had competed separately only since the Mexico games of 1968. In the enemy’s back yard of Munich 1972, the DDR vaulted above its western sibling, and stayed there for the remainder of its days. In Montreal 1976, Moscow 1980 and Seoul 1988 (Warsaw Pact countries boycotted Los Angeles 1984), the medal table remained the same: 1st USSR, 2nd DDR. Neither country even existed by the time of the next games.
Whispers about the unnaturally burly East German competitors, the women in particular, soon proved true. The country’s Olympic miracle was built on mass state doping, often unbeknownst to the pitifully young competitors who were usually told that they were taking “vitamins”. Dark Mermaids takes us back to 1990, in the chaos of immediate post-wall Germany, and spins a seductive tale from this gruesome frontline of sporting politics.
Its heroine is Sophia Künstler, a child DDR swimming sensation at Montreal ’76, whose subsequent illness, a result of her doping, propelled her and her doctor father across the border to live in the West. When we first meet her, fourteen years later, she is a Berlin police officer. Her past ambushes her when a battered corpse is discovered in a city park: it is an old friend and swimming colleague from the same DDR home town.
The unfolding nightmare reels off in multiple directions, and Anne Lauppe-Dunbar spares us none of it. Shattered families, broken bodies and minds, brutality, rape and even murder were considered prices worth paying for the state to boost its status through sport. Lauppe-Dunbar marshals the facts of history deftly, and devastatingly, into her fictional characterscape. Her narrative is unflinching and darkly sensual, its evocation of the smell, taste and colours of fear, or of oozing bodily fluids and equally goopy emotions, immensely powerful.
So powerful, in truth, that it sometimes overwhelms the nuts and bolts of the plot, an occasional irritant in a story with many sharp twists, particularly towards the climax. But then she swoops back with lines of such pitch-black poetry that almost all is forgiven. This is much more a lyrical tour of a man-made hell than it is a police procedural page-turner.
Twenty-five years after its demise, the DDR remains the poster boy for doping in sport, though of course it rages on. Only recently have we learned that kindly, capitalist West Germany, so indignant at the Olympic success of its poor twin, embarked on its own dubious programmes in the 1970s. Russia remains under deep suspicion; others too. The DDR muscled its way to the overall Olympic silver by the foulest of means. Team GB, we’re told, did it on nothing stronger than lottery funding and pluck. Let’s hope that that remains the truth.

Review, Mrs Peabody Investigates

Friday, January 15, 2016

Anne Lauppe-Dunbar’s Dark Mermaids (Seren, 2015) is an absorbing debut that’s tricky to categorise: a literary-historical crime novel, perhaps. Set at an intriguing moment in German history – 1990, just a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall – it shows national and individual identities in flux, and the full extent of Stasi (East German secret police) activity beginning to emerge. However, its central focus is the GDR’s shameful use of steroids on young swimmers and the after-effects of that state-sanctioned abuse (here’s a BBC article with a good overview of the scandal). I very much liked the novel’s sensitive depiction of emotionally damaged police officer Sophia Künstler, and how it explores the political complexities of East German everyday life.

Anne is a lecturer in creative writing at Swansea University, and was partly inspired to write the novel by her German family roots.

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