My Throwback Thursday choice for this week is a historical novel set in Berlin in 1946. It was published in January 2015 and my copy was kindly supplied by Emily Burns at LittleBrown and Co
Set in Berlin in post war 1946, with everything in extremely short supply, Kasper Meier trades information and deals in goods for the black market in order to keep himself and his elderly, sick father alive. He lives in one room in a half bombed out building where he secretes anything and everything that might be even remotely saleable. Kasper is despised for being homosexual, still illegal at the time, and tries to be as inconspicuous as possible. But when he is visited by one of the rubble women, Eva, a young girl who wants help finding information about a British pilot, he is drawn into a deadly web of intrigue.
‘I need someone’s help and no one will help me. I’ve got ways of paying for it, but still no one wants to take it on and you’re my last hope. What I’m saying is that I’ll make you a deal. You help me and I’ll pay you – simple as that. It’s no big issue for you. And if the payment isn’t enough of an incentive I promise not to….Well, you know – report you and Herr Neustadt.’
Kasper clucked his tongue and scratched the side of his nose. ‘Blackmail is a very ugly business, Fräulein Hirsch.’
Berlin is a devastated, rubble strewn and dangerous city where the inhabitants struggle to survive, living by their wits. Some work clearing the rubble, others trade their bodies. Corruption is rife, lawlessness prevalent and soldiers thought guilt of rape are being found murdered.
Frau Beckmann, a shadowy and elusive figure, who seems to control many of the girls, including Eva Hirsch, knows Kasper’s secret and is blackmailing him into finding the information she seeks. Despite fearing for his own life, Kasper feels afraid and sorry for Eva, and determines to find out what he can about Frau Beckmann and what her hold over the girls is. The more Kasper digs, the more sinister things appear. Nothing is as it seems and Kasper is drawn ever deeper into Beckmann’s machinations and the ensuing menace.
Initially, Kasper Meier seems to be a cold, unlikable and austere character, the description of a tall, lanky and bony man with an ‘unsettling thickness of his straight, white hair, that despite brushing and trimming, stuck up in heavy tufts, yellowing slightly at the fringe, where the smoke from his cigarette curled up after staining the parts of his fingers that weren’t already blackened.’ Not to mention ‘his right eye, which was milky white and immobile. What had once been a shining black pupil, surrounded by a bright green iris, was now a faded blue stain beneath a smooth misty blue layer, like cooked egg white.’
As the story progresses however, the complexity and compassion of Kasper’s character begins to emerge, along with insights into the suffering and horror of his past life. There are ever deeper glimpses of the sad, hurting and kind-hearted man underneath the veneer. This is an intensely graphic and atmospheric account of life in a very bleak and war-torn Berlin, the desolation, the desperation and hopelessness of half-starved people who will do whatever it takes to survive, extremely apparent in Ben Fergusson’s very descriptive writing.
Being slightly critical, I did feel the story was perhaps a little too drawn out and quite hard to follow in the first part of the book, and overall could maybe have done with fewer than it’s almost 400 pages. After that, though, the pace and storyline pick up and with it the tension and emotion. There’s no compromise in the harrowing depiction of life and atrocities of a city destroyed and its people broken by war. It’s a very moving story, quite compelling, encompassing what must have been a huge amount of extensive historical research.
About the Book
The war is over, but Berlin is a desolate sea of rubble. There is a shortage of everything: food, clothing, tobacco. The local population is scrabbling to get by. Kasper Meier is one of these Germans, and his solution is to trade on the black market to feed himself and his elderly father. He can find anything that people need, for the right price. Even other people.