Fifty years ago in August, 1961, the border between East and West Germany was sealed and the new Wall kept anyone from leaving East Berlin. This barrier to freedom stood until November, 1989. In The Moment, Douglas Kennedy creates an event that changed the life of Thomas Nesbitt in Berlin in the 1980s when the Wall was still up. Nesbitt, a travel writer, recently divorced, receives a package that forces him to remember his earlier years in Berlin.
Kennedy methodically wallows through over a hundred pages revealing his own theories on the writing process, true love, and the war – wisdom that seems mostly trite. Not until the flashback with Nesbitt in Berlin twenty years earlier in the 1980s does the action start, with the narrative becoming a mix of historical fiction, romance, and spy thriller. As Nesbitt relives his time in Berlin with Petra Dussman, an East Berlin translator for Radio Liberty who escaped to the West, his descriptions of a time and place that existed not that long ago are a window to living through the Cold War.
“The tension of being in a largely forbidden place, where the undercurrent police state paranoia was…tangible. East Berlin: the bogeyman of all Cold War nightmares.”
Petra’s backstory, when finally revealed after she and Nesbitt have become lovers,
confirms the horrors hidden behind the Wall. The descriptions of guilt by association as well as incarceration with physical and mental torture are compelling to read – the espionage only adds to the fervor.
Kennedy divides the story into five parts: Nesbitt facing his demons in a loveless marriage; the flashback that slowly builds the historical snapshot of the Cold War; the climax with love, betrayal, coerced patriotism, and regret; the big reveal – not so hard to predict – when Petra tells her version of the story. Kennedy unnecessarily repeats too much of the story already told – until it diverts into an unexpected twist.
In the end, Kennedy returns Nesbitt to the present and ties up all the loose ends. Checkpoint Charlie has vanished, no traces of the Wall remain, Petra leaves a final letter, and Nesbitt makes an investment in the future. In his last words, Nesbitt invokes “the moment…that tells us who we are, what we search for, what we so want to unearth…” In Nesbitt’s life, Petra was his moment.
Did I like this book? Hard to say. Yes – for the history, the romance, the bits of spy thriller. But – over 500 pages – too long a moment. The story could have been reduced to about 300 by omitting much of the repetition and clichéd observations on life and love.
- 50th anniversary of the Berlin Wall: a timeline (guardian.co.uk)