Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Review of Midnight in Berlin by James MacManus (Duckworth Overlook, 2016)

1938 and Colonel Noel Macrae is transferred from Vienna to Berlin as military attaché. Macrae is alarmed by the Nazi programme of rearmament and their political rhetoric and wants Britain to take a tough line against German ambitions for expansion eastwards. However, the British ambassador has well developed links to senior Nazis and is a strong advocate of appeasement. As Germany runs diplomatic rings around Britain and France, walking into Austria and threatening Czechoslovakia, Macrae liaises with a senior German army figure who claims he represents a group plotting against Hitler but will act only if Britain backs a coup. The British government does not want to get involved, and to make life complicated Macrae’s contact is having an affair with his wife. Macrae himself is drawn to the enigmatic Sara, a Jewish woman forced to work as a prostitute in an exclusive Gestapo brothel designed to entrap the elite of German society and foreign visitors. As spring arrives in 1939, Macrae has three pressing concerns: can he save Sarah from the Gestapo? is his marriage worth saving? should he take matters of state into his own hands?

Midnight in Berlin, set in the city in 1938/39, draws heavily on actual events and policy and involves numerous real-world characters to tell the story of how Britain and Germany slipped towards war. To add some fictional narrative, MacManus hooks the story around the efforts of British military attache, Colonel Noel Macrae (loosely based on the real attaché at the time), to change Britain’s policy of appeasement and take a more interventionist position, and the tale of Sara, a young Jewish woman forced to work in a Gestapo honey-trap brothel. Macrae is taken to the exclusive club where he meets the woman who offers to pass on information in return for knowledge about the fate of her captive brother. The period and the events are interesting, but for me, the tale is too much a history lesson lightly fictionalised with not enough of a story. As is stands, if the historical account was pared back there's little left, and when the story did focus more on the main fictional characters it flits briefly on their affairs rather than dwelling upon them. Indeed, the tale is cast as a love story, however, the relationship between Macrae and Sara did not come across as a Nazi-era ‘Pretty Woman’. Rather, there was some lust, manipulation, and lingering infatuation, but there was no sense that there was anything serious developing and story tails off to a damp squib of an ending.

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