Hensher's divided Berlin is everything you imagine it should be - a sombre, sophisticated place populated by cynical students and inscrutable apartment dwellers. As in New York, everyone has come from somewhere else: Friedrich Kaiser, the novel's "hero," is a young dissolute from Cologne who passes his days in a fug of alcohol and uncomfortable thoughts; Daphne, the "heroine," a nice girl from the provinces who reinvents herself as a clompy-shoed student with terrorist tendencies.
Receptive to the overtures of strangers, Hensher's adopted Berliners make friends in bars, supermarkets and at private views. The issues that divide them psychological, political, sexual - are also the ones that bring them together, and the author is an expert when it comes to choreographing the more advanced moves of the friendship dance.
The most complex character in the novel, the mysterious Mr Picker, could be a character from a Patricia Highsmith novel. We are never sure of his job (he owns a grey filing cabinet, and always carries a notepad), his appearances (nondescript), or his motivation. He enters Friedrich and Daphne's life one snowy New Year's Eve, and casts an enjoyably ambiguous shadow over the rest of the proceedings.
The novel's plot device is intriguing, if far-fetched. A drunken plan hatched by Picker and Friedrich to flood East Berlin with ecstasy tablets (the idea being that forbidden fruit rather than political pressure will bring the Wall tumbling down), teeters on the brink of becoming a reality.
As it turns out, history happens without Friedrich and Mr Picker, though their evolving emotional lives depend on it.
An engrossing novel as memorable for its cinematic set pieces - a couple tangoing on a strip of deserted Autobahn, a cyclist's bid for freedom during the Tour de France - as for its reflections on East and West. EH