Reviewing Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon
My grandfather fought in the European Theater in World War II, and other than a few stories that he told me what I was a child, he was famously close-lipped about the entire experience. I don’t know if it is his connection to the war or my own love of history, but I can always be pulled into a book about WWII. When I heard that Joseph Kanon was writing a new book about that time period, I knew that I wanted to be one of the first to read it (I was completely infatuated with his previous book, Istanbul Passage and read almost the entire thing in one sitting). What Kanon gives us in his new novel Leaving Berlin is a story not of the height of the war, rather a political thriller situated around a newly divided Germany and Berlin under the power of the Soviet State.
Many, many books are written about the horrors WWII and the worrisome actions that lead up to it, but not as many cover the early reconstruction after, with even fewer discussing what was going on in the East, behind the Iron Curtain. Kanon has developed a niche for writing amazingly detailed post-WWII novels that show the reader a time and a place that many do not know.
In Leaving Berlin, Kanon introduces us to Alex Meier, a former exile from Berlin, returned to find the city much the same as it is completely different. Alex was a successful young writer before the war started, but was lucky enough to escape, as his Jewish heritage would have been a death sentence under the Nazis, as it was for his parents. He spent the entirety of the war in California, where he married and had a son. However, his past in Berlin, especially his memories of his first love, Irene, stayed with him always, and when his socialist past comes to haunt him in McCarthy-era U.S., he makes a deal with the C.I.A. to clear his name in exchange for returning to East Berlin to spy on the Soviets.
What Kanon gives us in this novel is a classic political suspense, full of car chases, double agents, secret rendezvous, and all of the tensions that surround the accidental spy. Alex is surprisingly suited for espionage, even as every choice he makes takes him deeper and deeper down the morality rabbit hole. The book is heavy with dialog over descriptions, but that moves the action along at a frenetic pace. So much happens throughout the story that it is difficult to remember everything happens in just a short period of days. Kanon really shines at showing the struggles between native Berliners and their new Soviet occupiers, as they try to adjust to their new leadership. The descriptions of German POWs (both soldiers and civilians) are eye opening, and add to the bleak landscape of this unsure time.
This novel will keep you flipping pages at a feverish pace, as the characters become more and more entangled in places they should not be. Loyalties and friendships are tested, as memories of a past Berlin collide with the realities of the present. This is a story for anyone who enjoys a good spy story or history, written with a deftness and humanity that only Kanon can achieve.
Meghan Volchko is a Collection Development Analyst at OverDrive, and she has forgotten almost all of the German her Pappy taught her.