Thomas Nesbitt is a divorced American writer in the midst of a rueful middle age. Living a very private life in Maine – in touch only with his daughter and still trying to reconcile himself to the end of a long marriage that he knew was flawed from the outset – he finds his solitude disrupted by the arrival, one wintry morning, of a box postmarked Berlin. The return address on the box – Dussmann – unsettles him completely. For it is the name of the woman with whom he had an intense love affair twenty-six years ago in Berlin – at a time when the city was cleaved in two, and personal and political allegiances were haunted by the deep shadows of the Cold War.

Refusing initially to confront what he might find in that box, Thomas nevertheless finds himself forced to grapple with a past he has never discussed with any living person – and in the process relive those months in Berlin, when he discovered, for the first and only time in his life, the full, extraordinary force of true love. But Petra Dussmann – the woman to whom he lost his heart – was not just a refugee from a police state, but also someone who lived with an ongoing sorrow beyond dreams… and one which gradually rewrote both their destinies.

In this, his tenth novel, Douglas Kennedy has written that rare thing: a love story as morally complex as it is tragic and deeply reflective. Brilliantly gripping, it is an atmospherically dense, ethically tangled tale of romantic certainty and conflicting loyalties, all set amidst a stunningly rendered portrait of Berlin in the final dark years before The Wall came down.

‘The Moment’ begins in the modern day with travel writer Thomas Nesbitt living alone in his home in Maine. It was Thomas’ purchase of this house, without consulting his wife, which put the final nail in the coffin of their relationship: a marriage destined to failure as his wife would never live up to his first love, Petra Dussmann, a woman he fell in love with in 1984 whilst visiting Berlin – a chapter in his life which he’d thought was firmly closed. Thomas is now a content recluse, the only person he really goes out of his way to socialise with is his daughter; but his quiet life is turned upside down when he receives a parcel from Berlin, with ‘Dussmann’ as the return addressee. Kennedy then takes the reader back to 1984 Berlin and we experience Thomas and Petra’s love for ourselves; a love which was destined to end in tragedy and which defines Thomas for the rest of his life.

I thought the character development in this novel was very good: as we learn about Petra’s past, her actions and emotions when she’s with Thomas become perfectly clear, and I relished how twenty-five year old Thomas changed after he met her: before Petra he had no real direction other than his writing and had never been in love. His feelings for her are immediately all encompassing, and he instantly rearranges his life to have her as a major part in it. I felt that his hermit-like middle-aged existence was a throwback to his life before Petra, where he relied completely on himself and seemed to socialise as a means to an end rather than for the simple enjoyment of it.

This book really was completely mesmerising. The descriptions of post-war Berlin were absolutely fascinating, particularly those of the artistic communities which survived in East Berlin. It made an amazing, if bleak, backdrop to a very engrossing love story, and the dark nature of the setting combined with the sense of distrust surrounding everyone led to a gripping read.

I did feel that there were some sections of the novel, particularly before Thomas and Petra’s relationship, which seemed a little drawn-out and, perhaps, redundant. I appreciate that the author was trying to give the reader a real feel for Cold War Berlin (which he achieves, to great effect), but I think some tighter editing might have made for an even better read.

‘The Moment’ is a beautiful work of fiction that I’ll re-read again and again. The narrative was enthralling, it draws you in and compels you to read on and on with no idea of what’s to come, and is realistic enough for you to completely believe in the characters and what they’re going through. A truly romantic, and heart-rending, love story.

4 and a half stars

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