Monday, September 5, 2011

Sally Nicoll

Sally Nicoll is a former journalist, broadcaster and advertising copywriter. Her first book, Bets and the City, a comedy memoir of her career as a professional spread better, was a surprise bestseller.

She lives in London’s Primrose Hill with her dog – the true hero of Bets and the City – who has not yet forgiven her for featuring an Irish Setter called Caesar in her fiction debut, a high stakes political thriller: The Power Behind the Throne.

Recently I aske her what she was reading. Her reply:
The Moment – Douglas Kennedy

I was going through a statutory phase of teenage angst when the thought first occurred to me: If it weren’t for Hitler, I’d be German. Which is to say my mother came to Britain as a childhood refugee from Nazi Germany, leaving behind her own family.

There must have been a moment when my grandparents decided to protect their daughter by exiling her to a foreign country. In that moment of decision, the whole course of my mother’s life was irrevocably changed – and my own destiny was forged.

Happily, my grandparents survived the War, and I have vivid memories of visiting them while the Berlin Wall was an everyday reality. To a child, ignorant of Cold War politics, the East was grey yet fascinating, and the Wall an object of curiosity. As for the stern soldiers with their guns and greatcoats, they just made me shiver.

As I grew older, I began to understand the significance of the flowers and wooden crosses placed at intervals along the Wall. I became an avid reader of Len Deighton and John Le Carre. On the night when Berlin became – almost out of the blue – a united city once again, I celebrated and wept in equal measure. And that Christmas, when a friend presented me with a small chunk of concrete that might (or might not) have been part of the Berlin Wall, I thought about how much of life is random, accidental and beyond our individual control.

So when I discovered the latest novel from Douglas Kennedy is set in the Berlin of my childhood memories, I immediately got hold of The Moment and accelerated it to the top of my holiday reading pile.

The Moment is Kennedy’s tenth novel. I’ve read his previous nine and watched with interest and admiration his evolution from action-adventure commercial novelist (The Big Picture) to international brand author (The Pursuit of Happiness) and lately (Leaving The World) to a highly accomplished writer who knows how to give literary authors a run for their money in terms of theme, use of language and narrative voice, whilst never forgetting that his primary job is to deliver a damn good story.

My anticipation was further heightened when I discovered the narrator of The Moment, Thomas Nesbitt, was a writer. I turned to Chapter One and…

…an hour into The Moment, and I was beginning to think Douglas Kennedy had written his first dud story.

Thomas Nesbitt, it turned out, was a dull fifty-something American protagonist, leading an unremarkable life somewhere in New England. And even when his younger self arrived in the Berlin of 1984, the first thing he did was to rent a room from a charmless, unsympathetic British heroin addict.

Did I really want to spend a further eight or nine hours in the company of these two losers?

In the moment it took me to decide to persevere for another chapter or two the remainder of my relationship with Douglas Kennedy was determined. Had I abandoned him in the hills above Rome, I doubt I would have returned in the future. (In case you think I exaggerate, I broke up with my childhood sweetheart, John Irving, a third of the way through Last Night In Twisted River.)

Happily, protagonist Thomas Nesbitt finally meets the woman who is about to alter the path of his life, translator Petra Dussman. At which point The Moment soars into a love story that all of us who have ever succumbed to love – or lust – at first sight can willingly embrace.

From the little things they do together – share a bowl of spaghetti and a bottle of cheap wine – to the unfolding of Petra’s tragic past (she is freshly arrived in West Berlin from the other side of the Wall, and her freedom has come at a price), their love affair deepens to the point of Forever.

And then––

Well that, of course, would be telling. Let’s just say that with The Moment, Douglas Kennedy has written a compelling story that continues to haunt me.

I love the way he uses Berlin’s winter snow as a metaphor, focusing on its power to cloak something that is ugly and deformed into an object of apparent (but deceptive) beauty. And I have forgiven him for the framing device that bookends The Moment.

I can see how that would work in a film. I understand the point he wanted to make, about how past decisions that turn on a sixpence can impact the rest of a life. But he almost lost me within the first fifty pages. And that would have turned out badly – because once you’ve dumped an author, you can never really go back.
Visit Sally Nicoll's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

--Marshal Zeringue