Written by Liam Roberts
After an engrossing and thrilling first chapter, readers may expect a zipping crime novel full of action and intrigue, which The Spring of Kasper Meier does have in plenty. But the novel’s strength is to be found in Fergusson’s poignant evocation of a Berlin left desecrated by war, and the enigmatic creatures who emerge from this landscape and spin the web of mystery that characterises the dangerous but enthralling city.
A setting that gives so much to its readers, but not so much to its characters. Food is sparse, meat a rare luxury and the city’s inhabitants are ravenous. Many have resorted to trading on the black market to find food, and it is the rare, intact remains from the war which seem to be the currency of Fergusson’s Berlin, whether it be barely-working watches, old cameras, shoes obtained from a recently found corpse or whatever else. The novel’s protagonist, Kasper Meier, is one man who trades on the market in an attempt to support himself and his elderly father. Kasper can get you anything, for a certain price. Which is perhaps why Eva Hirch finds herself at his door asking for information about a British soldier. Herr Meier is instantly captivated by this droll but young, pretty, precocious girl but does not fancy getting tangled up in military affairs and hence tells her no can do. He is left slightly dumbfounded when she then begins to blackmail him. Because everybody has a secret in Berlin, and if someone knows yours that could be the end of you. Beyond her opaque façade, Meier spies an inherent goodness in Eva and convinces himself that he is only finding the information to help out young Eva, despite having been threatened himself. Eva, too, is drawn towards Meier’s mystery but restrains herself from developing a friendship with him due to the watching eye of her shadowy employer Frau Beckmann who seems to have her finger in every pie and is incessantly present due to her two lurking twins Hans and Lena. As the plot unravels, Meier and Eva find themselves to be two vulnerable elements of a seemingly-inescapable and increasingly-intricate thread of murder and mystery which leaves the reader flicking through the novel’s almost 400 pages.
But despite enjoying the action provided by the plot, what I found most enjoyable about the novel was Fergusson’s highly sensual description of the city and his attention to detail, both of which gave his city a three-dimensional shape and made his plot believable, convincing and hence entirely engrossing. So when Eva first enters Kasper’s flat, she doesn’t smell coffee but rather ‘the sour smell of old ersatz coffee and rancid milk’. Likewise when she sits down the reader is made aware of ‘a stream of little cuts and bruises, pink, grey, blue and yellow, tumbled down her forearms to her hands where the skin around her fingernails was red and bitten’ and between talking we are offered details such as ‘she […] briefly nibbled at her cuticle’. Such descriptions and attention to detail abound in Fergusson’s prose and allow the reader to slip into the world of these characters, a world that is completely foreign to our twenty-first century existences but is made familiar through Fergusson’s descriptive powers. In fact, although I haven’t read an enormous amount of historical fiction recently, not since Mantel’s Bringing Up The Bodies have I read such compelling descriptions that really evoke the historical period in the reader’s imagination. Moreover, Fergusson spent four years researching his novel in Berlin and so references to places, names, facts and doses of German are dotted around the prose and enhance the authenticity and believability of the novel. His research seems to have certainly paid off and I can’t wait for my next trip to Berlin this June when I will inspect the city with Fergusson’s Berlin fixedly in my mind’s eye.
All in all Fergusson has achieved an outstandingly well written novel which contains a fine balance of action, historical interest, setting and character. It is an excellent debut novel and I will look forward to see what Fergusson adds to his newly-opened oeuvre in the coming years.
Liam Roberts blogged at Bookish Ramblings
Ben Fergusson, The Spring of Kasper Meier (Little Brown, July 2014) 978-1408705049, 400 pages, hardback.
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