Just as writer Thomas Nesbitt’s marriage fades to a close, a package arrives from Germany bearing the name, ‘Dussman’. It is the name of the woman with whom he had a passionate love affair back in the divided Berlin of 1984. He has heard nothing of Petra Dussman since, but he knows that the memory of their time together has undermined all of his subsequent attempts to settle and form relationships.
Fearing what he may find inside the package, Thomas recalls his youthful arrival in Germany. The story moves back to his superficial attempts to describe an East Berlin that Petra understands so much better than a visiting American ever could. Briefly, despite her fears and in the midst of suspicion and cynicism, they manage to prove that “happiness exists.” But the more Thomas learns, the more the secrets of Petra’s past and the realities of Cold War politics threaten to entangle them both. The travel book that Thomas eventually produces is ‘diverting, readable, and just a bit shallow’. This is the ‘true’ story – the emotional centre that is missing from the publicly published version.
I suspect this novel will linger in the mind long after the last page is turned. Through the eyes of his chief narrator, Douglas Kennedy vividly re-creates the tense atmosphere of a Berlin cut into two by the Wall. As the book moves between times and narrators, we too can marvel at the changes that have taken place since reunification – and understand the long-lasting effects of the evils that were perpetrated by both sides under the old regime.