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Snowleg [Paperback]



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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Remorse. The bird that never settles." Oct. 3 2004
By Mary Whipple - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.

During his third year of medical school, members of a traveling mime troupe invite him to accompany them on a trip to Leipzig, where his unnamed father had been arrested. Though he has been warned about the secret police, the constant spying on foreigners, and the dangers of going off on his own, the 22-year-old Peter, nevertheless, falls passionately in love with a young East German, whose Icelandic nickname, "Snjolaug," sounds to him like "Snowleg." At the end of his four-day trip to Leipzig, however, he leaves her, only to spend the next twenty years dreaming about finding her again.

Peter's search for Snowleg, and secondarily, for his father alternate with flashbacks and memories, as the relationship of Peter and Snowleg unfolds. The role of the secret police in their separation and the conflicts between the original ideal of communism and its later cynical 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. In the UK, where the book has been out since January, the judging panel for the Man Booker Prize has selected this novel for its longlist for best novel of the year. Mary Whipple
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Two trips to Leipzig July 31 2006
By Roger Brunyate - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
English schoolboy Peter Hithersay learns that his true father is not his mother's husband, but an East German dissident whom she met briefly in a music competition in Leipzig. Visiting Leipzig himself several years later in search of his father, Peter has a similar encounter with a young German woman nicknamed Snowleg (the only name he knows), but this ends badly and his other search is fruitless. It is not until nineteen years later, well after the Wall has fallen, that Peter visits Leipzig again and is able to find some resolution to both his quests.

This is a strongly narrated book, with an excellent sense of social atmosphere, mostly well-drawn characters, and enough mystery to keep one reading compulsively. Peter's life in between the two Leipzig visits, finding success as a doctor and lover but little happiness as a person, is especially convincing, although he is not very likeable in this phase. Probably the best part of the book comes just at the end of this nineteen-year sojourn when he takes a very old dying woman as a patient. Although the fact that she is able to give him the first clues to start him once more on the trail of Snowleg stretches coincidence a little far, the quality of the relationship itself is so tender that it doesn't matter.

But once he goes back to Leipzig to hunt for Snowleg, the texture changes. Mostly now he meets with strangers, interviewing them, looking for clues. Too much gets told; not enough shown. At the point where most novels would be concerned with emotional resolution, this one suddenly reverts to belated exposition. This alters the pace of the book to the point where even the beautiful and surprisingly subtle ending cannot work as it should. A pity, but it is an absorbing story even so.

I find myself thinking of Ian McEwan, most especially his ATONEMENT. There, as here, a single selfish action causes suffering which must wait several decades before it can be atoned for. In both books, too, it is left to the reader to judge whether the atonement is adequate, and I find this a little bit of a problem. But SNOWLEG, like the McEwan book and Shakespeare's earlier THE DANCER UPSTAIRS, is a serious novel in that it raises significant moral and political questions in personal terms.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Identity and redemption behind the Berlin Wall May 21 2005
By Reader from Singapore - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Nicholas Shakespeare's "Snowleg" is a novel about the search for identity and redemption. Its hero Peter Hithersay's young life first comes to a sudden standstill when his mother stuns him with a confession that just about erases his past and leaves his self identity shaken and confused. No sooner has he set out on an obsessive mission to recover his past than he meets and fall in love with a young East German girl who desperately needs his help to escape the East and whom he knows only as Snowleg. In a familiar moment of weakness, he rejects her and spends the rest of his life regretting and trying to atone for this one mistake. Whose forgiveness he needs - hers or his own - is a moot point and a theme of the novel.

For sure, life for Peter loses all semblence of normality until his soul is settled. Till then, he sleepwalks through life as in a state of suspended animation. He conveniently forgets he has a loving family back home in England. As a medical student in Germany, he wanders through a series of half-hearted affairs with some of the most selfish and unsavoury women you can possibly imagine and even manages to sire a son. Only when he connects with an old lady he is treating does he unknowingly stumble upon the first clue that will lead him to one of two people he is searching for...and then not. Find out for yourself. Shakespeare's reliance on chance and coincidence to make this plot connection is possibly a weakness but one we all too readily forgive for the romantic resonance it brings to Peter's story.

Those who have read "Stasiland", Anna Funder's wonderful piece of investigative journalism, will also appreciate the heightened sense of drama brought upon by the post-1989 confession of those who had spied for the regime and lived through a chapter of recent history from behind the Walls. The cataclysm visited upon the lives of East Germans since the Wall came down couldn't be more contrasting against the relative stability of England.

The parallel between Peter's story and that of his mother's says something about the cyclicity and the folly of love and life. She has learnt to let go. He must do too. One's self identity can only be redeemed from within, the novelist seems to be saying.

"Snowleg" is a beautifully written novel. Definitely one to be read and savoured. Recommended.
6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Could not appreciate this book. March 17 2005
By Ralph Blumenau - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars What historical fiction should NOT be Feb. 4 2010
By C. Fleming - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I must admit that I had high hopes for this novel when I first picked it up and read the dust cover; however, after finishing the book I was left with a feeling of thorough disappointment. I am trained as an historian with a focus on German history, specifically Cold War East Germany, and the thing that stood out in my mind about this book was the lack of depth of historical research. Shakespeare's knowledge of East Germany is limited to say the least. His understanding of the Stasi sounds as if it were culled from the sensational newspaper and magazine articles that proliferated after reunification. His grasp of Leipzig's geography is also sorely lacking. These three things contributed, in my mind, to an overall lack of detail that gave the whole book a sloppy quality. It seemed clear to me that he did not really understand the reality of life in East Germany, what was actually possible for foreigners in such circumstances, the reactions of the Bureaucrats, the police, the Stasi. In every fiction book, it is the author's choice to place his characters into unlikely situations, but in a work of historical fiction the author is also making the choice to makes these decisions within a realistic historical framework, and to make these choices the author has to know what that historical framework is before he pushes the boundaries of it, and in this case, I do not think that Nick Shakespeare has done this successfully. Aside from these problems, I was extremely unsympathetic to the main character, Peter, because he was so inscrutable, so atypical, so ridiculously overdrawn that he was difficult to identify with a someone who could be a real person.
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