What’s it all about?:
From the bestselling author of Istanbul Passage, called a “fast-moving thinking man’s thriller” by The Wall Street Journal, comes a sweeping, atmospheric novel of postwar East Berlin, a city caught between political idealism and the harsh realities of Soviet occupation.
Berlin 1948. Almost four years after the war’s end, the city is still in ruins, a physical wasteland and a political symbol about to rupture. In the West, a defiant, blockaded city is barely surviving on airlifted supplies; in the East, the heady early days of political reconstruction are being undermined by the murky compromises of the Cold War. Espionage, like the black market, is a fact of life. Even culture has become a battleground, with German intellectuals being lured back from exile to add credibility to the competing sectors.
Alex Meier, a young Jewish writer, fled the Nazis for America before the war. But the politics of his youth have now put him in the crosshairs of the McCarthy witch-hunts. Faced with deportation and the loss of his family, he makes a desperate bargain with the fledgling CIA: he will earn his way back to America by acting as their agent in his native Berlin. But almost from the start things go fatally wrong. A kidnapping misfires, an East German agent is killed, and Alex finds himself a wanted man. Worse, he discovers his real assignment is to spy on the woman he left behind, the only woman he has ever loved. Changing sides in Berlin is as easy as crossing a sector border. But where do we draw the lines of our moral boundaries? Betrayal? Survival? Murder?
Filled with intrigue, and the moral ambiguity of conflicted loyalties, Joseph Kanon’s new novel is a compelling thriller and a love story that brings a shadowy period of history vividly to life.
What did I think?:
Leaving Berlin is the last novel that was picked for the Richard and Judy Autumn book club 2015 here in the UK and I approached this book with slight trepidation I’m afraid to say as I’m not really a huge fan of espionage novels. Could this book change my mind? Well, it had its moments for sure and there were some points where I thought I was going to give it four stars but then others where I have to be honest, I was fighting to stay awake. I kept reading because of those four star moments but unfortunately it has averaged out to be an “okay” read for me.
The premise is instantly intriguing – a Jewish writer who fled to America to escape the Nazi’s is back in Berlin and treated almost like royalty by the city’s culture team who are desperate for young novelists, playwrights etc to come back to Germany and develop a new country, pure and dignified and as far away from fascism as they can possibly imagine. The country is completely divided (just before the wall went up which thoroughly separated the country in two), the Russians have taken control of the East side and a new brand of politics, socialism, is creeping across the nation.
Coming home to post World War II Berlin is a big shock for our writer, Alex Meier, but none so big as the reason he is actually here – as a spy for the CIA in America who have a vested interest in what the Soviet Union is up to. If he completes his mission, Alex is guaranteed a safe return to America and the opportunity to be with his young son is too huge a chance not to take up. Almost immediately things do not go entirely according to plan and Alex finds himself a wanted man in a very dangerous time where questioning authority can still lead to curious disappearances. Furthermore, discovering that he has to spy on the only woman he has really loved, Irene, who is involved with a top Russian serviceman is a huge blow for Alex but again, something he has to weigh up against the chance of getting back to America and being with his son. Then, when an enemy of the state and former friend of Alex’s appears, desperate for his help, he has to seriously think about where his real loyalties lie.
This book had oodles of potential and I’m sorely disappointed that I was let down in parts. There were some intriguing characters, particularly Alex and Irene but there were others that just seemed to pass me by, perhaps there were too many or some that didn’t hold my interest, I’m not sure but it did drag down occasional passages which greatly affected the flow of this novel, in general. Don’t get me wrong, there were some fantastic action-packed sequences that made me hold my breath in anticipation but then it was followed by dialogue that seemed clunky at times and a bit unbelievable at others. I’ve only just started learning about the history of Germany post World War II and it’s absolutely fascinating which is what drew me to reading this book initially, and it’s also pretty obvious the author has done his research, but overall I just wish it had held my attention the whole way through. However, I think fans of espionage will absolutely love this offering from Joseph Kanon.
Would I recommend it?:
Maybe – for fans of the genre.
Star rating (out of 5):