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by John Lawton
Atlantic Monthly Press, September 2013
400 pages
ISBN: 0802121969

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

As with the characters in his other books, the players in THEN WE TAKE BERLIN have depth and history. Lawton spends a good deal of the book showing you that history. John Holderness, called Wilderness, is the anti-hero of this saga, and we see him as a young teen from a working class background being taught by his grandfather how to be a cat burglar. The special skills he learns serve him well as he goes on to work for the British secret service in the capacity of a burglar just as WWII is ending. He is sent to Germany and his job is to look over the papers of German citizens who need to be cleared of Nazi affiliations before they can get a job. He is able to sense when a person is lying or omitting the truth. But he needs more to occupy his time, and soon becomes involved with the vibrant underground world of smuggling. We are also introduced to a young girl, Nell Burkhardt, who has been evacuated from Berlin during the war. The lives of Wilderness and Nell intersect at various times as they become lovers, break up and then meet again in a very different sort of situation decades later.

At the start of the book, it is 1963 and Wilderness is called to New York by a man with whom he had "worked" during the post-war period in Berlin. Frank Spoleto had been involved with Wilderness in a large-scale black market smuggling scheme, using long-forgotten tunnels under Berlin to navigate between East and West Berlin. Now Frank has a job for him, and offers him a lot of money to do it. The story is that Frank's colleague has a relative who needs to escape from East Berlin. He wants Wilderness to make use of the tunnels under Berlin that they had used for smuggling.

Wilderness is a rogue, but Frank is a scoundrel. He is someone who always manages to have others take the risks and give him the money and the glory. Wilderness is aware of this, and knows that he should not get involved with whatever scheme it is that Frank has cooked up. He has serious questions about it from the start, but decides to go along. Knowing Wilderness' history, it may be that the excitement and the challenge call to him. Wilderness soon figures out what is going on, but he may not know everything.

John Lawton is a master at recreating the look and feel of war-torn Europe and the aftermath of WWII. The reader becomes caught up in the details of time and place, making this a tough book to put down. The ending is somewhat post-modern, and includes some playing with historical fact, but as a whole Lawton's latest work is highly recommended.

Anne Corey is a writer, poet, teacher and botanical artist in New York's Hudson Valley.

Reviewed by Anne Corey, January 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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