Set in the mid-fifties and based on real events this unusual story centres around Leonard Marnham, a rather naïve twenty-five-year old Englishman who comes to the divided city of Berlin to work as part of a British-American undercover surveillance team. Whilst working on a top secret underground tunnelling project to tap the phone lines of the Russians, Leonard meets a beautiful German divorcee, Maria, in a night club and he quickly falls in love and loses his virginity. Leonard has never met anyone like Maria before and after a few months they become engaged. However, Leonard does not get the happy ending he planned as Maria's ex-husband is a violent, jealous man and one who is not fully prepared to let her go. In one evening, Leonard loses what is left of his innocence after he commits a violent act that turns his whole life upside down. Both Leonard and Maria struggle to cope with the aftermath of this tragic event - but it is what they subsequently decide to do to cover up their crime that is truly horrific and this dreadful act not only affects their immediate future, but has consequences that reverberate throughout the following years. I can't really add more to this without spoiling the story, but I should mention that there is a very gruesome section in this book where the author is exceptionally graphic in his description of the act committed by Leonard and Maria. I found this part of the book difficult to read - but that said, I could not put it down until I had finished it.
This is a cleverly written and intriguing novel which works on more than one level - it's part East-West spy thriller, part love story and part coming of age novel, deftly packaged into one. I have read several of Ian McEwan's novels in the past, enjoying some more than others, however this book is a bit different - it's certainly not for the faint-hearted, and if you do read it, I think you will understand exactly what I mean.