I received a copy of Leaving Berlin as an ARC (advanced reader's copy) from Kanon's publicist for the purposes of review. The publicist didn't solicit me; I thought the book sounded so good I asked for a copy. My honest review follows.
This review DOES NOT contain any spoilers.
In the off-chance I haven't said it enough on my blog, I love historical fiction. I think it's one of the best ways to learn about history because you get a narrative quality that just isn't there in a lot of textbooks where the events are related through an omniscient, annoyingly academic narrator.
I want to know what the stories are like for those with boots on the ground. If that's what you love about historical fiction, then you don't want to miss Joseph Kanon's new novel, Leaving Berlin.
There are a couple of things that impressed me about this book right from the beginning--things that made it stand out among the other works of historical fiction I've read in recent years.
- It's not your typical Word War II fiction. It's actually set in 1949, in the aftermath of World War II when Berlin is still mostly bombed-out shells of buildings and the Germans are trying to create a new life amidst their city being divided into quadrants and governed by Soviet occupation.
- The protagonist, Alex Meier, isn't an American (even if he did go on an extended visit there to escape the Holocaust).
- The Americans are not always the good guys. (Let's be honest, that's something you rarely see when the book is written by an American author. I'm glad this book took a deviation from the predictable.)
The novel opens with Alex pinned in an uncomfortable position...and that's putting it lightly. As a socialist, Alex's politics don't sit well with McCarthyism and the Red Scare, so the federal government harasses him for information. Meanwhile, his native Germany is trying to rebuild, so the writers, artists, and cultural influencers are being recruited to return under the promise of celebrity treatment.
As a successful writer, Alex has been asked to return to Berlin, and he uses this as a chance to earn his way back to the United States so he can be with his family--without the feds coming to call. He agrees to go to Berlin and spy on the Soviets in exchange for being able to return to the U.S., free from the tribulations of McCarthyism.
But things aren't that easy. From the moment Alex arrives in Berlin, he is confronted with kidnapping, murder, betrayal, conflicting allegiances, an old flame, and just trying to survive in a broken city where finding someone to trust is all but impossible and there are only bad decisions to be made.
As a celebrity, Alex has influence, which comes with its own set of challenges. He has privileges and power, but everyone wants to use them, and he can never go incognito since everyone knows his face. It doesn't take long for him to become entangled in the political crosshairs of the Germans, Soviets, and Americans, where even the most innocuous decisions can mean the difference between life and death. In a city where one word amiss can land you in political prison from which you might never return, Alex is always on his toes, looking over his shoulder, and dancing a dangerous espionage waltz.
Leaving Berlin is a glorious marriage of historical fiction and edge-of-your-seat thriller. The story gets more complex and the stakes get higher with every handful of pages. I couldn't put it down and I didn't want it to end.