Jonathan Cape | 2018 (12 July) | 288p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is March 1941 and London is enduring the nightly torment of the Blitz. Jack Hoste is an Air Raid Warden and he spends more nights than not searching the ruins for life. Not even his own home is safe from the bombs. But this is only one side of Hoste’s life. He has worked to gather a group of Fifth Columnists, Nazi sympathisers who want nothing more than to welcome Hitler and his troops to British shores. Hoste collects their information. He is their Gestapo master with a direct line to Hitler’s headquarters. Through him, they can shape the outcome of the war. Or so they think. Hoste has his on target in mind – to find Marita Pardoe, the most dangerous spy on British soil.
Amy Strallen has a most curious job. She works at a marriage bureau and her role is to matchmake. Amy had thought that business would fall off after the outbreak of war but, on the contrary, men and women seem keener than ever to find their partner for life. The fear of death – either on the battlefield or in the Blitz – has done that. One day a new potential client arrives at the Bureau’s door, Jack Hoste. He has reason to believe that Amy Strallen may be the only person who can lead him to Marita Pardoe. Amy’s life it about to be transformed and so, too, is Jack Hoste’s.
Our Friends in Berlin is the first novel by Anthony Quinn that I’ve read but it certainly won’t be the last – I loved this novel. It presents the perfect blend – wartime spy story, with all of the tension and secrets that you’d wish for, and a deeply affecting love story that seems all of the more fragile because of the times in which it is set. London during the Blitz is terrifyingly brought to life as ordinary people grow used to constant sirens, sleeping in shelters, the noise, death and chaos all around them. I can’t think of another novel I’ve read that made it feel as horrific and yet also so extraordinarily mundane – this is what life has become and people dealt with it. True courage is shown in these pages alongside the fear and worry. I was immediately caught up in it all. And that’s even more I got to know the novel’s wonderful characters.
Both Jack and Amy are thoroughly fascinating and fully developed individuals. They are so different from one another but each as interesting. Jack’s secrets have made him the man he is. We only learn very slowly more about who that man is. Amy is as much in the dark as we are, even more so. Their stories couldn’t be more rewarding to read about.
Our Friends in Berlin moves to and fro between the years, taking us to 1930s’ Germany as well as to later in the war. I was hooked throughout. More than anything, the novel has such a strong plot and it is supported by an unexpected emotional side. War, particularly the First World War, has cast a deep shadow over many of the novel’s characters. Loss is commonplace but always terrible just the same. It’s not surprising that so many people are searching for love, especially as many have already experienced it and had it violently torn from them. The Nazi threat is also extremely real and very, very close. The work of the Fifth Columnists, including the enigmatic and curiously fascinating Marita Pardoe, is a genuine threat.
Our Friends in Berlin is such an involving and at times emotional tale of spies, love, menace and courage during the Blitz and its aftermath. It is superb. I can’t recommend it enough.