The Girl in Berlin is a really frustrating book. This is sad when where are so many things to like about it. I’ve folded down the corners of loads of pages which is a good sign (though I can’t be bothered to go back to them, which isn’t). The setting of early 1950s Britain sets it apart from many other Berlin thrillers which focus on the late ’40s. Elizabeth Wilson has created a cast of morally ambiguous and therefore interesting characters. One of the leads is called ‘Kingdom’ and we are encouraged to consider his alpha status and what it means for him and those around him: as a symbol it’s clever but unobtrusive, like the best kind of spy. Across the novel, there’s an even-handedness that includes a critique of Britain and both East and West Germany. You can almost feel the smog and smoke and austerity. The twist, when it comes, is believable, well-earned and authentic, if disgusting. (‘This again?’ I moan to all who will hear it.)
Oddly and a little sadly, the intelligence of this novel becomes a handicap. Most of the characters (Jack McGovern and Dinah Wentworth aside) are pretty dislikable, and with a big and slightly confusing cast, that’s a lot of dislike to have to bear. The chaos is overwhelming at times though at others the circle of characters is curiously small and the coincidences seem at times jarring. Yes, it’s how it would have been and all that, but I find myself losing sympathy as a result.
I have a hunch about how this novel has made it difficult for itself. Early on in the novel, Wilson includes some cracking paragraphs about the mores and hypocrisies of the upper and upper middle classes of England. They are exquisite, the kind of thing that Julian Fellowes has made his name on supposedly, but not, delivering. I’d happily read a whole novel of this stuff but in any case I want more of it in this novel. When the appropriate characters appear I figuratively purr in anticipation and then just when there should be class satire, something thriller-like happens instead. It’s dissatisfying to be drawn more to an aside than to the A-plot. Not that the A-plot is bad. It’s got all the qualities set out above. But it is anchored in a book the ambitions of which are too great. How awful, to criticise a book for being too ambitious. But I can’t help think that a thriller such as Leaving Berlin that just does one thing brilliantly can sometimes be what is required.
So: do read this book, and enjoy thinking about what the writer is trying to achieve. So much of The Girl in Berlin is outstanding, but be prepared for unevenness.