The Girl in Berlin by Elizabeth Wilson
14th May 2012
A feminist cultural historian, Wilson has also published non-fiction books such as Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity and Bohemians: The Glamorous Outcasts.
Set in London and Germany in 1951, The Girl in Berlin traces the intertwining fates of a group of characters – some of whom readers of Wilson’s previous novels will recognise.
Alan Wentworth, a journalist, is cheating on his wife, Dinah; while Alan’s radical friend, Colin Harris, has returned to London from Communist East Berlin.
Special agent Miles Kingdom hires Jack McGovern, a detective, to follow Harris. This pursuit leads him to Berlin and the eponymous ‘girl’, Frieda Schroder, who becomes engaged to Harris in the hope of a new life in London.
Wilson’s story plays out against the backdrop of real events – the disappearance of intelligence officer Guy Burgess and diplomat Donald MacLean, two of the so-called ‘Cambridge Five’ – made headlines that summer, and it was later discovered that they had defected to the Soviet Union.
Another spy, Dr Anthony Blunt, makes a cameo appearance in the novel as director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, and mentor to part-time student Dinah. He acted covertly as a recruiter of spies, but this would not be revealed until 1979.
‘The British are so weighed down by the past,’ Harris complains, citing ‘all that triumphalism about the war. We stood alone, we won the war, all that.’
Wilson depicts an arrogant elite far removed from the daily grind of austerity. With the Nazis safely swept under the carpet, ‘red-baiting’ spread throughout the West. But the desperate poverty of the Eastern Bloc, and its slide into dictatorship, leave Harris an outcast in both camps.
Wilson’s female characters embody certain archetypes, with Dinah as the good wife, and Frieda the femme fatale. The men are defined by class; McGovern, the son of a Scottish unionist, struggles to conceal his origins, while the suave Miles Kingdom is seemingly beyond reproach.
Although the main storyline is well-crafted, the subplots – Alan’s illicit affair, and Kingdom’s shady past – aren’t quite as compelling. As several characters have appeared in Wilson’s earlier novels, it may be helpful (though not essential) to read them as well.
Wilson’s dry, thoughtful style can make her characters hard to relate to, and some of the more dramatic moments seem anticlimactic. Nonetheless, she keeps readers guessing to the end, suggesting that there will be further instalments in this saga.
Recommended for: Readers of cerebral spy novels (think John Le Carré, not James Bond).