Bell...makes graphic use of varied sources ... She writes particularly well about the situation of women, whether maidservants in the 1860s or feminists in the 1960s ... Her perspective is intimate and personal ... Beguiling ... Bell is especially illuminating about these years, writing vividly of wilderness idylls in bombed-out spaces; of campaigns against grand plans for inner-city freeways; of the songs of Ton Steine Scherben, 'the soundtrack to West Berlin’s anti-establishment and anarchist movements' in the 1970s ... Her personal quest and psychogeography of the city—a study of tumult, shock, shame, and denial followed by confrontation and increasing openness—take her down routes outside conventional history writing. In its artful spontaneity, The Undercurrents belongs with other examples of contemporary writing that uses walking, drifting, or even taking a bus as a mode of exploration, and often of healing .. These excursions can be distracting, yet Bell’s 'drifting' technique works well in piecing together scattered, partial images ... Every step, every stone in Berlin is weighted with a history that we need to read and understand, yet the city is also rich with music, art, a mix of cultures, and opportunities. Bell’s intriguing book...recognizes this, while evoking the struggles of the past to build a story as 'sprawling and unruly' as Berlin itself.
With sleuthing interest and novelistic flair, Kirsty Bell’s The Undercurrents has ruptured familiar terrain. The book’s subject, Berlin, is portrayed as a thing in motion, captured through a compound lens of culture, hard history and memoir ... I flinched while reading these early pages, sensing that a parallel was being drawn between histories of unfathomable cruelty – the holocaust, wartime slaughter and rape of civilians – and the author’s personal trials. This worry was tempered, though, as the book became an associative thesis on the dangers of repression, from gargantuan acts of genocide to the comparatively subtle shames of familial collapse. That this thesis holds together, while encompassing a personal-to-political range so broad as to test the borders of acceptability, may be this book’s most important achievement ... An enchanting and sometimes disturbing symbolism runs through The Undercurrents, as Bell imaginatively weaves the city’s hard factuality with the emotional and physical experience of living in it.
Bell, a British-American art critic, undertakes a kind of investigation of the history of Berlin, as if to tether herself more tightly to the place now that her original link is gone ... Bell provides a vivid sense of Berlin’s physicality ... She branches out in impressionistic fashion to the city’s cast of characters, offering us tantalizing glimpses some of its most formative figures ... Bell is well aware of the potential pitfalls of conflating her personal history with that of such a fraught location ... Bell’s technique of showing her process results in a work that is deeply absorbing, even hypnotic. She turns to psychoanalysts for help in excavating the psyche of her adopted city ... When I encountered the book’s increasingly frequent mentions of feng shui, hidden 'energy' and other such conceits...I went along with it, gamely, until suddenly, I couldn’t. My breaking point came in the final third, when Bell summons an astrologer who places dark stones in the corners of an oddly shaped room in Bell’s home, stones ... I found this turn in Bell’s highly original and atmospheric book more than a little disappointing. Up to this point, she has ably guided us on a poetic exploration of the layers and depths in this troubled, thrilling, world capital.
Splendid ... The book is a speculative excursion, a writer celebrating a search for place, time, and self ... Bell’s keen ear for excavating language is also exhibited when she talks about the breakup of the marriage ... Some readers, in search of a detailed history, might find this book too subjective, too personal. But, to me, it is this freewheeling approach that makes The Undercurrents such an impressive achievement.
Wonderful ... On a blank frame, Bell interweaves a marvelous tapestry, including a relatable ribbon of reasoning with her own self-doubt ... Bell’s approach – close readings of history, maps, books, movies and art; meandering but productive strolls; and the employment of esoteric modalities, especially feng shui– offers a fresh, original perspective ... Although this wandering quality sometimes makes the book read like a maze of who’s who and what’s what, the intriguing throughlines are grounding ... I won’t spoil it for you, and I can’t say if Bell’s work will satisfy the history buff more than the memoir lover more than the architecture and city-planning enthusiast; genre-bending is the beauty and the challenge of the hybrid form. While the memoir/confessional aspect of The Undercurrents left me craving a little more dirt on Bell’s ex-husband – late in the book she describes her first time seeing him at a gallery opening, a story-path too quickly rerouted by a description of the building he lived in at the time – but the historical/esoteric aspect offers a more unique and provocative afterthought.
Bell’s portrayal...remains curiously detached. The turbulences of her life seem to whisk the author and her readers past many intriguing details – too quickly for us to take them in ... The Undercurrents is an articulate but somewhat breathless journey of self-discovery rather than a cultural topography of Berlin.
Enthralling ... Bell...has lived in Berlin long enough to feel 'the undercurrents and the downward pull that seem inseparable from Berlin’s identity.' In this nuanced, layered narrative, she effectively describes that sensation, creating a complex hybrid of the past and present ... This sense of jumping between themes could have resulted in a tangle of confusion, but the author skillfully weaves the narrative threads into an elegant tapestry ... A remarkably absorbing work that requires close attention—and repays in full.