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3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
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on 16 June 2017
Exactly as described and great service
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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.
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on 29 January 2007
The concept of lost love isn't anything new and you can probably work out how it will end, but you're still likely to be drawn into the intricate stories of the main characters.

I found this gripping in parts, but at other times it just felt like the author had 'tried too hard' and concentrated more on the words rather than the story. Having said that, the book contains a lot a detail about the divided Germany, which is interesting and definitely makes this novel stand out from others.

On the whole, worth a read. A good one to take on a long flight.
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HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 12 November 2004
In one of the most elegantly written and carefully constructed love stories in recent memory, Nicholas Shakespeare introduces Peter Hithersay, who, on his sixteenth birthday, learns that "Daddy" is not his father. In Leipzig, East Germany, for a vocal competition, his mother had met and loved his biological father very briefly, only to see him arrested, and taken away forever. Curious about Germany, Peter spends his gap year in Hamburg and applies for and is accepted to its medical school, where he lives for the next six years. Eventually, Peter makes a trip to Leipzig, where he, now twenty-two, falls passionately in love with a young East German, whose Icelandic nickname, "Snjolaug," sounds to him like "Snowleg." When he has to leave, he is unable to forget her.
Peter's search for Snowleg, and secondarily, for his father, is told through flashbacks and memories, and the nature of their relationship unfolds in detail. The role of the secret police in their separation and the conflicts between the original ideal of communism and its later implementation are shown through Uwe and Hesse, two secret policemen, who appear in the prologue and in the conclusion and provide fresh perspective on the action, elevating this novel above the typical love story.
The vibrancy of Shakespeare's prose makes every page of this novel a delight to read. Filled with irony and, often, humor, the dialogue comes alive. Unforgettable descriptions, especially of the darkness, cold, and soot in Leipzig, reveal feelings as well as convey information. To Peter, listening to the radio, a love song "had red eyes and ran furtively across his mind...It was a rat dressed up as a promise." Repeating motifs--a van with a fish painted on it, a dying deer, the story of Sir Bedevere, a fur coat, and the bones of a muskrat--echo throughout the novel and connect scenes symbolically. Like most romances, the story relies on coincidence and fortuitous accident, but Shakespeare's writing is so strong and the story is so exciting that even the most jaded reader will willingly accept the implausibilities. Mary Whipple
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on 22 June 2015
Snowleg is a girl living in East Germany before re-unification who is slowly waking up to the devastating nature of the society with which she has to deal. She meets a young Westerner who has come to Germany to try to find his father, a man she has never met, who fathered Peter in a single meeting with his mother. His family have broken the news that the man whom he loves as a father, is not, in fact, his father. When they first met his father was on the run from the authorities. He does not even know the name of his father as his adventure in East Germany begins. Peter falls in love with a girl called Snowleg (an Icelandic name). As the complications deepen between her and Peter he makes a terrible mistake one day, confused by the demands of the regime, a mistake that he immediately realises can only be seen by Snowleg as a terrible betrayal.

Through the rest of his life this betrayal haunts him. He has several affairs and his wife Frieda, has a child, Milo. The pace of the novel is quite stately but I was caught up by the events, and by Snowleg’s hopeless plan to study psychiatry. The ending is a bit of a dying fall, however. In this novel humanity and forgiveness are the themes. In contrast to some of the books I’ve read with an East German setting. the characterisation is extremely good and I felt the book had a deep feeling for the realism and the futility of both the broken love affair and the immutability of the of their shared past.
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on 30 November 2012
Nicholas Shakespeare is the best novelist writing in English who still uses a recognisable narrative structure and tells a moving story with delicacy and verasity. Please write more!
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VINE VOICEon 17 January 2006
A story of love and longing which takes us into Eastern Germany past and present.
In common with other reviewers I found Shakespeare very convincing at evoking atmosphere and a sense of time and place. Less convincing, however, is the manner in which every loose end is tied up all too neatly at the end.
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on 28 June 2015
This was one of the most fascinating stories I have ever read - it was a page-turner from start to finish. He is an amazing author who I only discovered after the recommendation of a relative. One of her best suggestions.
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on 13 January 2008
A name like the author's is a heavy burden, and, as far as style goes, this Shakespeare here does quite well. His problem is how to organise a convincing plot, and, sad to say, this is where he fails, at least in the long run. At the beginning his story is really thrilling and quite unusual for a British author. On his 16th birthday young hero Peter Hithersay finds out, that his beloved father is not his biological one, as his mother had a one-night-stand with a German prisoner on the run in Leipzig in the GDR. From that moment Peter feels German, takes German language courses at his rather posh school and endures being mobbed for his German roots by his fellow students. He then studies medicine in Hamburg and gets the chance to go to Leipzig with a student drama group. Here he hopes to find out more about his father. Instead he falls in love with a girl called Snjolaug, a name that sounds to him like Snowleg. She takes him to the farewell party of her brother, who has finally been allowed to leave the GDR. Snowleg finds out, that this also means her personal future is in shambles. So after they spend the night together in a Schrebergarten datscha, she asks Peter to smuggle her out of the country. Although he first is glad about that, he then has second thoughts and in the end denies knowing her when confronted with her at an official reception. And now his and the reader's torment begins. Shakespeare is neither really interested in his hero's quest to find Snowleg again, nor in the dire situation he has left her in. What we hear about the infamous methods of the Stasi is just cheap sensationalism, nothing new or convincing. Like Housseini's hero in "The Kiterunner" Peter keeps moaning on and on about his fatal mistake. And, there are just one too many coincidences in the plot.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 17 March 2005
Despite the praise that has been heaped on this book, I can't say that I liked it much. The author seems well acquainted with East Germany both before and after reunification, and sometimes he gives fine descriptions of atmospheric settings; but to my mind these were often over-written, forced or pretentious. The same goes for the description of often rather seedy and grotesque characters, even given that the Stasi went in for (to put it mildly) seedy and grotesque operations; and there is one incident which is just too gratuitously disgusting for words. Nor did I take very much to Peter, the central character. True, he is supposed to be a flawed human being, riddled for years with guilt for not having taken the risk to smuggle out to the West a girl with whom, as a young visitor to the GDR, he had had a short affaire; but I find little that is attractive about his personality or about his relationships with all except one old woman. The book is slow - once Peter is on a trail of interviews to find the girl, his interlocutors are all deliberately and tantalizingly slow to pass on any information they have: that in itself becomes monotonous. There are too many rather improbable coincidences. There are references near the end of the book to certain incidents earlier on which you are likely to have missed unless you have read the book very closely and have a good memory. It's the sort of book which one really ought to read twice, which I sometimes like to do under similar circumstances, but had no desire to do in this case.
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