July 6, 2022

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Review – The Berlin Exchange by Joseph Kanon

2 min read

An American imprisoned in the UK for spying for the KGB is released in an exchange to East Germany. Set in 1963, this well-done espionage novel exposes some unique practices engaged in by both sides in the heart of the Cold War. Martin Keller is an American physicist who’d fallen in love with an German women at the end of WWII. Both join the communist movement and Martin ends up betraying the west for ideals and his wife. Here he is reunited with her and has to choose between the family he had and the East German system that hasn’t delivered on its idealistic promises.

I’d not read Joseph Kanon before, but had heard good things and was looking forward to this one. The East Berlin of this novel is as grey and gritty as you would expect it to be. Kanon gives us insight into the arms and science races that underpinned the nuclear arms race between the US and Soviet Union. Likewise, Kanon exposes some of the hypocrisy of the elite, even as they try and justify their choices against the regime they are building. Most critical is the selling/trading of political prisoners that would come to be a significant source of economic benefit for East Germany and adding to the culture of corruption.

Kanon’s writing is evocative and places the reader squarely in the midst of the Cold War intrigue. He really captures the setting and atmosphere. Some may find his dialogue (and pacing of same) frustrating but as I read it, it struck me as realistic, not packaged for a story.  The excitement as the story reaches its denouement is palpable, if not in your face. While there is redemption, and in fact the entire story is in essence Martin’s search for redemption, the story does not end as most readers would want. But it is well told and rarely in real life do all plans go as planned.

This is a sophisticated spy thriller, from an author I will read again.

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