Set in Berlin in 1989, An Honest Man is the story of one eventful summer in the lives of a group of young people. Their tale unfolds in parallel with the momentous political change of the day and their lives will never be the same again following the arrival of newcomer, Oz. At the centre of the story is Ralf, an Anglo-German, with an English mother and a German father, his burgeoning love for Oz will have ramifications for himself, his friends and his family. Ralf and his friends are all eighteen or nineteen years old, they are about to experience that one summer between school and work/university, when they have the freedom to indulge themselves and not worry about the world turning (that may not exist anymore). This is a twilight zone between the childhood they have left behind and the adult world they will soon enter, for now they are just enjoying each others company. The problem is the world continues to turn and interferes in surprising and tricky ways. A lazy afternoon at the pool is interrupted by the presence of Oz, the handsome son of a rich Turkish family, he is a man shrouded in mystery. His presence will reveal dark secrets, loyalties will be tested and a devastating act of betrayal will rend Ralf’s family forever.
A small group of friends, Ralf the narrator, his girlfriend Maika, Stefan and Petra, on/off lovers, are at the swimming pool. Their preoccupations are teenage, arrogant and certain, they talk literature and wish to appear sophisticated. Ralf is planning on going to university in England to study geology, his three German friends have also completed their ‘arbitur’ (end of school exams) and have their own choices to make. Ralf has his eye on a man swimming past the group, he’s seen him before in the street. In the changing room after the swim Ralf sees the man again, he can’t open his locker ‘schieße’, so Ralf helps; there’s a connection. Oz admits the meeting is not a chance encounter, Ralf has seen him before at his house. Oz is spying on his neighbour Tobias Rode for the security services, Rode is a suspected Stasi spy. He asks Ralf to help, Ralf falls for Oz, threatening his relationship with Maika. While watching Rode, Ralf discovers something much closer to home but he also learns that Oz is hiding things from him. Ralf will have to make a choice with dire consequences…
An Honest Man completes Fergusson’s Berlin trilogy spanning the twentieth century. There are themes around identity and personal integrity common to all three novels. Fergusson has explored these themes from different and increasingly nuanced perspectives against the background of changing cultural values across time. The judgements people make and their frailties are under extreme pressure from both personal circumstance and complex political situations in this novel. An Honest Man may be the most subtle and intense novel of the trilogy. Each novel centres on a pivotal period in German history: World War I, the aftermath of World War II and, now, the run up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. These are very personal stories and like The Other Hoffmann Sister and The Spring of Kasper Meier, which won the Betty Track Award, An Honest Man is a morally complex tale. We see the characters in Fergusson’s novels, in this case Ralf, tested, riven by divided loyalties, and forced to make decisions that have life-changing consequences.
Ralf is a young man discovering his sexual identity and falling in love for the first time, although he has used the word before. Readers familiar with The Spring of Kasper Meier may see echoes of that story here. This is 1989 and there is a freer attitudes towards sexuality, and radical, alternative life styles in the west of the city. However, the east and west divide is a political reality that seeps into the social framework of the city too and with dissent rising in the east this is a challenging time for the young West Berliners. Ralf’s relationships with his parents are cool, not estranged but detached, their love is undemonstrative. Their inability to talk will trip them up.
An Honest Man may be one of the best novels I’ve read for getting inside the heads of young people on the cusp of adulthood. Ralf is anxious to be grown up, he is forming adult attachments and establishing his own sense of self-determination – a drive for independence. Yet some of the naivety of childhood and its innocence remains. He still lacks an understanding of the consequences of his actions and lashes out before thinking when he is hurt. He is no longer blindly loyal to his parents, he doesn’t see them as infallible, he wants to rebel. The young are driven by a innate sense of honesty, the desire to see right and wrong as absolutes but the adult world in grey, nuanced, complex. Ralf is forced to make choices and his betrayal is irrevocable. The power to destroy without realising just how devastating it will be makes this story all the more poignant. This is an historical fiction that deals in lies and deceits, compulsions, and the overwhelming desires of the heart.
Nothing is quite as it seems and a sense of impending tragedy overhangs this novel. An Honest Man is a coming-of-age tale, a moving bittersweet love story, a tale of life’s profound ability to interfere in our happiness and the story of a complex relationship between a son and his parents. This is a beautifully written and engaging novel that comes from the heart. Fergusson is an accomplished novelist.
Paul Burke 4/4
An Honest Man by Ben Fergusson
Little, Brown 9781408708927 hbk Jul 2019