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The Lie, By Petra Hammesfahr

A double life requiring a body double

From time to time a crime writer embarks on the Doppelganger story, where one character sets about impersonating another. Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar is probably the classic but this sub-genre is rarely successful, chiefly because of the difficulty in convincing the reader that one human being can sufficiently resemble another to be accepted by the closest of friends and family.

The German novelist Petra Hammesfahr is courageous in tackling this theme, with the story of two women so physically alike that, after some coaching, jobless and down-at-heel Susanne can pass for rich and beautifully groomed Nadia. After another unsuccessful job interview, Susanne, who has illegally withdrawn money from her mother's account to survive, is attracted by Nadia's proposition. To enable Nadia to meet her lover from time to time, she should take her place at home, even sharing Nadia's husband's bed.

Hammesfahr makes this story, preposterous in outline, work with great success, largely through the quality of her writing which, in Mike Mitchell's translation, tells a compelling tale. She exploits the genre's great imaginative opportunity: the chance to step into a different life, the subject of so many human fantasies. Nadia's world, with its Porsches and Mercedes, indoor swimming-pool and designer clothing, is utterly seductive to Susanne. Unfortunately, so too is Nadia's husband, Michael. Their emotional history is played out against the background of criminality into which Nadia has plunged Susanne. For the source of Nadia's wealth has involved her with dangerous and vengeful characters. Susanne must discover who to trust in her new world.

The narrative moves at such a pace that one seldom has time to question its authenticity, with the contrasting worlds of Susanne's grotty flat and Nadia's glamorous villa so convincingly described that one shares Susanne's belief that she must try to carry the deception off. Whether she will succeed keeps the reader, peering over Susanne's shoulder at all the traps, turning the pages of this remarkable book.

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