Near the end of the Cold War, two students in the German Democratic Republic navigate love, deception, and freedom in Rintoul’s (translator: Outside Verdun, 2014) award-winning debut novel.
In the wake of her brother’s accident—the details of which, like many in Rintoul’s story, come to light only gradually—Magda Maria Reinsch lost faith in the communist cause. She once believed that communism would yield equality, but now the East German system strikes her as one “where favour counts for everything and merit for very little.” This change of heart inspires Magda to rebel against the party until her father, once a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, intervenes to give his daughter a second chance. Now, Magda studies to become an English-German translator at Karl Marx University Leipzig, all the while dreaming of an escape to the West alongside the charming Marek Dembowski, a friend who remained fiercely loyal to Magda after her brother’s injury. Together, Magda and Marek devise a way out of East Germany that revolves around Robert McPherson, a Scot finishing his advanced philosophy degree at Karl Marx. Though Magda casts a manipulative spell over Robert—at one point he chooses visiting Prague with her over seeing his sick father back home—she also finds herself falling for the Westerner, overcome with “an unexpected stab of desire.” Eventually, the Stasi catches Robert and Magda, a turning point that sends guilt-stricken Robert into a long stretch of depression and alcoholism, while Magda, after a brief imprisonment, must once again piece together her personal identity and public image. Beginning in 1985 and continuing after communism’s sharp decline, journalist and translator Rintoul’s engrossing tale alternates between Robert’s and Magda’s perspectives. Written in the second person, her sections are particularly strong, vividly anchoring the East German experience: “You know what the air is like in Berlin…a mix of brown coal dust and two-stroke fumes that leaves a bleak ferrous after-taste.” The novel’s weakness is Marek, who instigates much of the plot yet never appears long enough to elicit sympathy or disdain.
A tense, compelling peek behind the Berlin Wall.