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