by Ben Fergusson
Oh dear. Yet another book that I really didn’t enjoy.
It was a book group selection and I found it available to download cheaply (which can be suspicious). I downloaded and read it fairly quickly, with only about a week in hand before the book group meeting – which in the end I missed, though I did provide feedback.
The book is set in Berlin at a specific point in time: the spring of 1946. The author has evidently gone to some lengths to research the period, and the atmosphere and setting are very evocative and, one must assume, at least to some extent realistic. Berlin is in ruins; the four occupying powers have numbers of soldiers in the city, and the remaining Germans are in the main women, old people and those injured or incapacitated in some way. Our ‘hero’, Kasper Meier (the non-German spelling of Kaspar grates already) is a trader on the black market who ran a bar before the Nazi era. As a gay man, he has something to hide, and as the sole carer of his elderly and inform father, he has something (someone) to protect. He is a prime candidate for blackmail, and when a young woman approaches him with a request to find a specific English pilot stationed in Berlin, he sets out to do so – but also to find out something more about Eva’s story, which he suspects from the first.
Interspersed with Kasper’s story and his growing relationship with Eva are apparently unconnected incidents involving members of the various occupying forces who appear to be the victims of targeted shootings. We gradually learn how Kasper’s role fits with these shootings, and in a somewhat surprising ending, we learn that the mysterious Frau Beckmann who has masterminded these shootings is not the person she appears to be, and is running the whole criminal enterprise for quite another reason than the reader (and Kasper) at first suspected.
The dénouement is quite clever, though barely believable. It does not compensate for the very thin plot that gets us there. This novel appears to be all about the setting, with the story as an afterthought. Even the characters are not very interesting or convincing. Kasper is a gay man with only one eye, who, we learn, had a happy relationship in the past which he hasn’t yet got over. His partner was arrested and, we may assume, transported and/or executed. We don’t really find out what makes Kasper tick. Eva’s character is even less satisfying: she is very young and has had some horrific experiences which have left her ready to take life – or so the reader is led to believe.
Aside from the spelling of Kasper’s name, there were a few other features that seemed to me unrealistic, as well as some basic grammatical mistakes; these never fail to make me wince. Most of Kasper’s trade is done by means of barter, which seems realistic. But when he offers money, would he really have used German currency (the non-specific “Mark”)? The action takes place two years before German currency reform. Surely a foreign soldier would not have accepted anything other than hard currency for his goods.
Sorry – this one got 5/10 from me, and I wonder if I was being a little over-generous. It’s back to Philip Roth and Marcel Proust for me now. Plenty more good stuff to read!