Sunday 30 April 2017

Review: The Moment by Douglas Kennedy

Hutchinson, €11.99, Paperback

To pick up a Douglas Kennedy novel these days is to do so with certain expectations. Kennedy is a master of big, blousy romantic fiction.

The American author (who went to Trinity College, lived in Dublin for a number of years and was at one time an occasional guest on the Late Late) creates satisfying romances that still manage to broach the more subtle aspects of real-life relationships. His 10th novel, The Moment, is no exception.

The book begins with Thomas Nesbitt, a 50-year-old travel writer, who has just been served with divorce papers from his wife of 20 years. Their marriage is finally over, something Thomas always knew would happen. On the same day, he receives a delivery bearing the name Petra Dussmann, a woman with whom he had an intense love affair 25 years earlier.

The next three-quarters of the book are taken up with retelling that story. Kennedy skilfully reveals details of Nesbitt's burgeoning career as a writer, his innocent exploration of love before his discovery of how it can blow your life apart.

The sense of time passing is a key element in this book, the retrospective knowledge that opportunities that offer some rare tendril of true love have to be seized before they disappear.'

Kennedy is preoccupied with the trajectory of life, the small, random, unconscious choices we all make and how those decisions can bat a life in one direction or another and have a huge impact on what happens next.

In the novel, Thomas falls desperately in love with the beautiful East Berlin woman, Petra. But their relationship is destroyed when he finds out that she is a Stasi agent and has been using their relationship to gain information from him. He is devastated by the betrayal, believing that every element of their relationship has been false.

It is only years later, once Petra is dead, that he discovers the truth. She was being forced to give information to the Stasi, who were holding her son captive. Too late he learns that the relationship was sincere and that it was only Petra's fear for her son's life that led her to betray him. But the crucial moment when he had the choice to commit fully to her and find the truth or to walk away, has gone for ever.

Kennedy riffs on the motif of betrayal, echoing through Stasi informants in East Berlin, to the devastating betrayals of love, to the betrayals of our own selves.

His description of Berlin in the 1980s is full of rich detail and insights. His portrayal of Thomas's unlikely friendship with his tragic Anglo-Irish heroin addict flatmate, Alistair, is a tender one -- the latter's love affairs and creative spirit act as a foil and counterpoint to Thomas's experiences.

The story is controlled and gripping, taunting you by taking its time to reveal details of the mystery woman Petra, socking you with unexpected twists and reassuring you with a sense that this story will follow through and won't let you down. And it doesn't. It certainly has a lot more going for it than its bland chick-lit cover conveys.

It's not original, but it doesn't have to be because it is bittersweet and romantic enough to sweep you away -- a perfect escapist read.

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