Review: Leaving Berlin

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon

Atria Books, 2015.  Hardcover, 384 pages.Cover Leaving Berlin

Set in post-World War II Berlin, this spy thriller provides readers with a history lesson and unexpected twists and turns.  In early 1949, Jewish author Alex Meier returns to Berlin at the Soviet’s invitation.  Meier previously fled Germany in the mid-1930s not only because of his heritage, but also his Communist beliefs.  Now the Soviets wish to see the return of a strong cultural presence within their section of Germany, especially in what the West call East Berlin.  Meier’s choice however, in the end was not his.  With the beginnings of the McCarthy witch-hunts, he had been targeted and forced with deportation, an act that forces his separation from his young son.  Fulfilling a devil’s bargain, he returns to Berlin as an agent in the new CIA with the promise to be returned to the states once he fulfilled his duties.

Intrigue begins upon Meier’s arrival in Berlin.  He meets other returning cultural figures, rediscovers old friends, and makes new acquaintances.  He also learns to work with his handler, a former Gestapo man. On his first morning, Meier finds himself involved in a kidnapping gone wrong that becomes the first of many harrowing events during his just over a week in Berlin.  Additionally, he soon discovers his real mission is to spy on the only woman he ever truly loved, Irene Gerhardt, nee von Bernuth.  Meier quickly becomes reenraptured by his beloved Irene.  Irene, on the other hand, likes the reminder of the old days but now keep company with a Russian secret service major, Sasha Markovsky.

Meier learns to live a double life–on one hand gathering information to send westward; on the other, pretending to be the best possible Communist.  The ante is upped when Meier also finds himself being recruited by his late friend’s younger brother, Markus Engel, now part of the new East German secret police, to keep tabs ion Irene and her friends. The trick with all of these relationships is learning who can and cannot be trusted.  Using his status as a protect source on both sides, Alex relies on his wits and quick thinking to deal with a succession of crises that cumulates on the night of the first post-war grand première, that of the play Mother Courage.

Kanon starts this novel with a historical note that explains a bit about the setting and various organizations mentioned throughout.  This was helpful since all play a key role in the story.  Besides the intrigue, one learns how easy it was to travel between all the sectors of Berlin before the Berlin Wall; how essential the Berlin Airlift was to West Berlin; and sees the stark contrasts between East and West Berlin.  It also exposes the inner workings of all the secret organizations of the era and how the cultural activities were sponsored and handled in the East. Kanon also finds brilliant ways to interject flashbacks near the novel’s beginnings to understand Meier’s relationships with members of the von Bernuth and Engel families.

Looking at the spy aspects, Kanon kept readers on their toes.  I hated to put this novel down; I wanted to keep reading to find out what happened.  Each event served as a building block to the next.  Many twists and turns appeared throughout, with two outright bombshells being dropped in the final chapter.  Now knowing the end, I almost need to reread the book and see if there was indeed any foreshadowing of those events; off-hand I can only think of one example.  For being sent in untrained and with his only personal goal to be returned stateside to his son, Meier turned out to be a prodigy with spycraft and post-war Berlin was the perfect training ground.

At present, I have only read part of another book by Kanon.  I found Alibi (set in post-war Venice) not to my liking; too much focus on parties and relationships.  However, I may go back and give it another try.  I also have his novel, The Good German on my to-read list and hope to read it someday soon (and definitely before I see the movie).  His novel, Istanbul Passage (set in post-war Istanbul) also sounds like it may be worth adding to my to-read list.

The publisher’s website for Leaving Berlin features both a video tour of Berlin with the Kanon and a reading group guide.  The video is part book preview, part a tour of modern-day Berlin, and part historic footage from those post-war years.

Leaving Berlin is set for release on March 3, 2015.

My review is based on an advanced reader’s copy I won in a publisher-sponsored contest.  I was under no obligation to review this, but I chose to since it is within the genres I usually review.

Lastly, I promise a non-book review for next week; I would have not posted three book reviews in a row if not for this one’s release date!

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