The Moment, By Douglas Kennedy

Love in a time of paranoia
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The Independent Culture

The past is a foreign country in more ways than one for the protagonists of Douglas Kennedy's novel. Largely set in Cold War Berlin, this hard-hitting love story tears down the dividing walls between past and present, showing how the course of history can turn in an instant. An author of consistently engaging and clever bestsellers, Kennedy has ranged from Stateside dramas to noirish thrillers. The Moment, his most trenchant novel, pulls together both strains, marrying romantic tragedy with Le Carre-style espionage.

In a small cottage in Maine a middle-aged writer, Thomas Nesbitt, is hunkering down after the breakdown of his marriage. Not long after his divorce papers are served, another package arrives. The parcel is from Petra Dussmann – a woman with whom he was involved 25 years earlier. He is transported back to 1980s Berlin and memories of a life-changing love affair.

Many of Kennedy's male leads dream of escape and reinvention; Thomas, at 26, is no exception. Practised in the art of evasion, he is anxious to shed the entanglements of his old life and start again. Renting a room in the Kreuzberg district, he becomes fast friends with his landlord, Alistair, a louche Anglo-Irish artist who introduces him to the pleasures of underground Berlin. A job at Radio Liberty provides an income and it is here that he meets Petra, a young translator with dangerous links to the GDR.

Romantic fiction relies on the notion that falling in love is a defining moment, and Thomas's attraction to the perpetually tired Petra is immediate and profound. Dressed in modish black, the loved-up twosome declare their passion over cheap wine and spaghetti. But as details of Petra's compromised past start to surface, Thomas finds himself swept up in a series of face-offs that expose him to the grubbier realities of Cold War surveillance. Thanks to Stasi and Washington operatives, Petra and Thomas are no longer masters of their own destinies.

The novel's set pieces are robustly staged and Kennedy turns the plot on its axis several times. The sadness at the heart of the novel is what makes it more than just a meaty recreation of an interesting time and place. A quarter of a century on, Thomasis left wrestling with the notion of opportunities missed and happiness squandered. In this measured and mature work, Kennedy asks how far we are all in hock to history.