Just in case you missed it, 2014 was the 25th anniversary since the fall of the Berlin Wall. So the publication of Fiona Rintoul’s debut novel which takes us back to the GDR in 1985 is well-timed.

Magda is a student linguist, desperate to escape along with her lover, Marek.  She’s not adverse to sleeping her way to freedom, if that’s what it takes.  So when Robert, a Scottish student studying for his Ph.D at Leipzig University arrives, she sees a means to an end.  He falls in love.  Both are double-crossed and must bear the wrath of the state.  In Magda’s case brutally. In Robert’s case, no less ruthlessly. That, however, is only half of the story. Years later, long after the Wall has disappeared, the truth of what happened in Leipzig is finally revealed.

The first half of the novel takes place when the GDR was firmly in the grip of communism.  While there is some freedom of movement and some black marketeering, the illusion of freedom is just that.  Every move is monitored and every life controlled.  The bluff and double-bluffs of the dissidents are more than matched by the Stasi. Magda might think she knows who is spying on her and who she can trust, but does she?  Enemies in plain sight are always the best camoflagued.

Robert’s story is just as interesting.  Why does a Scot studying at St. Andrews transfer to Leipzig in the mid-1980’s?  How do subsequent events scar him for life, lead him to a life of excess in the City, ultimately forcing him back to Germany to face his demons? 

Germanophiles will love this novel for its realistic depiction of the sinister heart of the GDR and for the truth that lives weren’t miraculously healed when the Wall fell.  Those less preoccupied with German history will enjoy the mystery at its core.  I did figure it out but only a couple of sentences before the reveal.

Rintoul deservedly won the Sceptre Prize and The Virginia Prize for Fiction with this novel.  I look forward to her second.