I received Ben Fergusson’s debut novel through the post in April, whilst I was excited to try a new author it has taken me till July to give it the much deserved attention.
A cycling commuter I struggle to fit books in my ruck sack along with a change of clothes, lunch etc. and so do most of my reading on my kindle. A direct impact of this is that Fergusson’s book has spent the last couple of months being moved from coffee table to kitchen counter to bathroom dresser, always picked up with the intention of reading it I somehow never got there. I’m not a particular fan of WWII books, fact or fiction and I think sub-consciously the idea of reading a book set in post war Berlin just didn’t appeal to me.
A few weeks ago I had an entire day to myself and with a summer storm going on outside I decided the best thing to do was to curl up with a good book. With time to give I turned to The Spring of Kasper Meier and I am so glad I did. Within a couple of chapters I realised this book is about more than post war Berlin, it is about secrets, histories, relationships and mystery.
Kasper Meier is a black market trader who likes to keep himself to himself. Eva Hirsch is a young woman who needs his help. Someone is killing soldiers and Meier and Hirsch’s lives are about to take a dangerous path together.
One of my favourite parts of the book is the role of ghosts, I don’t mean haunting ghouls but glimpses of people and the past. For his own happiness Kasper tries to remain in the presence presenting a gruff front to those he meets, but his time alone is haunted by his life and happiness before the War. As he finds himself more embroiled in Eva’s situation ghosts of a different kind enter his life in the form of the Beckmann twins, ever present a movement felt but not always seen. And without giving too much away you can’t talk about the shadows of people hanging over Kasper and Eva without considering Frau Beckmann. A controlling influential presence on the trade scene of Berlin, can one woman, rarely met, really bring such danger and fear.
Meier’s life is unravelled through a series of memories, meetings with people he knew pre-War and conversations his father has with people. A slow and compelling story forms itself and the the way people from his past and present are so delicately woven together is a credit to Fergusson.
The Kasper of 1945 we first meet is not likable, grumpy and sullen he has become a man who is about what you can get for him and what you can do for him and the trade cost rather than friendships and relationships. But in the delicate weaving of his memories, through the few reminiscent conversations he has with people, we see a younger happier Kasper. A young man whose life was filled with friends and laughter. And through the introduction of Eva to his life we see an opportunity for a brighter future, if the past doesn’t get in the way. It is in Kasper we see the biggest scar and impact of the war on the residents of Berlin. In realising that as I read I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Kasper and all others like him loss adrift in a city trying to find itself.
The Spring of Kasper Meier is beautifully written with a depth given to each character we encounter from the old woman off to the zoo to trade to the Russian solider counting down the days till leave and he can return to his wife and children. If I had to make one criticism of the book it is that I saw a major plot twist coming and had worked out a key part of the mystery, whether we are meant to have done this or should have been surprised who is to know but knowing it didn’t take anything away from this great book.