TOP 500 REVIEWERon 6 March 2014
To begin with the positive – the author has written a truly authentic picture of life in the unlamented German Democratic Republic and, in particular, of how it was for a foreigner to be there. Like the narrator, Peter Hithersay, I visited Berlin, Hauptstadt der DDR, and Leipzig several times, and Shakespeare captures the greyness, depression and fear of the captive citizens very well as he does the country’s poorly maintained streets, ‘cobbled streets with no advertisements ... potholes, fumes, rigid faces’, apartments, the limited selection of items available in shops, and the gnawing realization that my UK passport would let me out whereas my colleagues, contacts and friends had no such opportunity.
This novel brings all those feelings back again, at Friedrichstraβe ‘a policeman stamped his passport and made him change his money into a useless and derisory currency that was tossed into a large box when he recrossed the border three days later’.
Turning 16, Peter finds out that his biological father was a political prisoner whom his mother briefly met in Leipzig in 1960 and who may be still living in Eastern Germany. After learning the language at school, he decides to study medicine in Germany and visiting Leipzig is part of a vague plan to find his real father, ‘There were storks in the chimneys and cobbles on the roads. It was the land of someone’s childhood. Not his, but his father’s maybe’.
The eponymous Snowleg is actually Snjólaug, the nickname of a mysterious girl who Peter meets when he visits Leipzig as part of a student mime group. Snowleg is the nearest pronunciation that Peter can manage of a name that originated when the girl’s grandfather spent as an Arctic trapper. Her hopes to become a psychiatrist are destroyed when her brother is ‘allowed’ to live in the West, the state’s punishment is to offer her the job of a university telephone operator, an excellent position from which to spy on her colleagues. When offered an opportunity to help Snowleg, Peter bottles out and spends the next two decades trying to hide his guilt under his workload as a doctor, a series of failed relationships, separation from his family in England and, eventually, drugs.
Peter’s life is spiralling downwards at an alarming speed when he decides to visit Leipzig to find Snowleg and seek her forgiveness. The author writes very convincingly about a doctor reaching the verge of a breakdown, protected by his friends, and blundering from one crisis to another. His writing is even more impressive in that it makes the reader feel sympathy for a character who is cold, withdrawn and unfeeling towards those around him, being sympathetic only to his patients.
The novel switches between England and Germany, Hamburg, Berlin, Leipzig and Milsen, over the period 1977-2002, with much of its latter half focuses on Peter’s return to a Leipzig that he does not recognise and his search for Snowleg – only then can he resume his life and work. There are several points where the plot stretches the reader’s imagination although, without these, the likelihood of his search being successful would be minimal.
Having spent so much effort describing the background to Peter and Snowleg’s first meeting, it seems improbable that they will not be re-united, so that the question is more how will they? rather than will they? and what will happen when they do? There are times when the level of romantic candyfloss and crème eggs threatens to overwhelm the reader but then the author pulls back just in time. Minor characters, such as Peter’s stiff-upper-lip [non-biological] father and entrepreneurial sister are deftly drawn as are the older people that Peter meets in Leipzig and patients from his clinic.
The continuing shadow of the Stasi is still evident, in the museum devoted to the service Peter hears about ‘174,000 unofficial collaborators, 132 km of files, 360,000 photographs, 99,600 audio cassettes, 250,000 political prisoners, 25,000 dead, 33,755 bought free’. Where are all the Stasi members, supporters and spies now? How could people like Snowleg manage to live in the country without being contaminated or was she, perhaps, involved with the Stasi herself?
I do not really know whether my attention would have been held had I not had my own memories of Leipzig that chimed with the story of Peter and Snowleg. Peter’s personal and professional life would certainly have been more fulfilled and financially and emotionally rewarding had he left Snowleg entangled in his past. Although it rambles from time to time, this is a good, thought-provoking read.