Richard and Judy Review: Leaving Berlin – Joseph Kanon

Richard and Judy Review: Leaving Berlin – Joseph Kanon

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“Kanon has been compared to Le Carre, Graham Greene, and George Orwell and judging by this latest novel one can see why.”

Richard’s review

To an entire generation of young adults, the history of Berlin begins 26 years ago, the night its infamous Wall came down and a divided city was liberated from itself. But this wonderful story is set before the Wall was even erected. Leaving Berlin focuses on the tense, surreal and shattered Berlin immediately after the Nazis’ downfall. Then, it was scarcely a city at all: bombed and shelled to destruction by the British, Americans and Russians, Berlin was little more than a giant heap of rubble, charred wood and ash in which Berliners lived like starving rats in a rubbish dump. So much for Hitler’s Third Reich that was to have lasted for a thousand years.

What a place, then, to set a story. Berlin, 1949. Ruined, yes, but still immensely important. Russia, Britain and America jealously divided Hitler’s formerly glorious capital and spied obsessively on each other from their respective zones. What happened in Berlin didn’t stay in Berlin – London, Washington and Moscow analysed every communication, meeting and crooked deal and based crucial Cold War policy on the outcome.

Judy and I pride ourselves on selecting really talented writers for our recommended reads, and Joseph Kanon is right up there with the best of them. Leaving Berlin is hauntingly and beautifully written. You’re going to love it.

Kanon has been compared to Le Carre, Graham Greene, and George Orwell and judging by this latest novel one can see why. Falling into the book is like falling into a vice; it grips you, pitilessly, until the last page.

“The story is far more about personal relationships than the Cold War”

Judy’s review

Alex Meier is a young Jewish writer who manages to escape the Holocaust by the skin of his teeth, getting out of 1930s Nazi Germany in the nick of time and resettling in California. Alex was also a communist. So when the McCarthy witch-hunts begin and America falls into a kind of hysteria about the imagined ‘enemy within’, he is in trouble. The authorities want to deport him back to Germany, threatening Alex with the loss of his family.

So he does a deal with the fledgling CIA. He will be ‘deported’ – but as an undercover spy for them in his native Berlin. If he keeps his nose clean and comes up with the goods, he will be quietly allowed back into the USA.

I love Le Carre but to be honest when I picked up this book I wondered if I was about to read something a little dated, and perhaps rather male-oriented. Another Cold War yarn.

I could not have been more wrong. The story is far more about personal relationships than the Cold War, as Alex picks up the traces of his old life – and loves – in Germany. It is also blisteringly exciting. Things go horribly wrong for Alex almost as soon as he arrives in Berlin; he is caught up in a deadly clash on the street between Soviet and American spies and barely escapes with his own life. From then on, he is only ever one step ahead of disaster. The tension created by Joseph Kanon is incredible and I read Leaving Berlin late into the night. Masterful, compelling stuff. Can’t wait for the next one.

Press reviews

Here are a selection of the reviews for Leaving Berlin

“Hugely Exciting”

The Telegraph

“One of the most exciting books I’ve read in years”

Alexander McCall Smith

“Kanon paints an unforgettable picture of a city wrecked by defeat and betrayal. Brilliant”

The Times