Because there's no question that POTSDAM STATION is a must if you're reading and/or collecting World War II thrillers. And Downing writes of both love and violence within this three-voiced narrative. John Russell, of British and American citizenship, has been forced to leave Germany at the peak of the war in order to survive. His son Paul (with mother and stepfather) has remained behind and enlisted in the German forces. His lover, the film star Effi Koenen, helped make Russell's escape possible and has hidden from the Nazi officers who would have forced her into propaganda (and a form of political prostitution). Effi is still in Berlin, which is now, in this fourth and final volume of the war adventure, caught in the pincer grip of the Allies: the Americans and British approaching from the west, and the Russian forces from the east. With General Eisenhower's decision that the Russians can "have" Berlin, John Russell takes a desperate chance to reach Berlin before the notoriously rapacious forces of the Russians arrive -- he flies to Russia and attempts to become an embedded journalist.
However, Russell lands directly into the mess of Russia's lust for the atomic bomb technology that the Germans presumably have discovered. And he's tangled up with men who've been labeled traitors by the Communists. He may spend the rest of the war -- maybe the rest of his life -- in jail. When an alternative arises, it's one that demands immense courage and physical risk.
And Effi's assistance to Jewish refugees desperate to leave Germany costs her both home and safety, so that she flees with a young Jewish orphan, Rosa, who rapidly becomes her adopted daughter of the heart.
Perhaps most poignant, young Paul, barely of adult age at all, has already lost fellow soldiers and friends to the brutal bombardment of the Eastern Front and is expected to donate his life to the final defense of Berlin against the Russians; should he run from this, he'd be shot as a deserter -- and besides, he has only his honor left.
In rapid rotations of narrative, these three people move toward each other as the Russians invade. But whether they can finally connect -- and how much they'll lose in the process -- is by no means certain. In Effi's words:
Well, if she had another birthday in May, it would be her thirty-ninth. Which might well be too late, though miracles happened. And then there was Rosa, or whatever her real name was. Effi had only known the girl for ten days, but already found life without her hard to imagine. And there was no one to send her back to. She wondered how John would feel about adopting a daughter. She wasn't sure why, but she felt fairly confident that he'd like the idea. And Paul, if he lived, could be the grown-up brother.Downing keeps the suspense at fever pitch for more than three hundred pages of wartime anguish. He braids the plot movement skillfully and intensely. But most of all, he paints with delicate certainty the kinds of love that blossom under threat of war: love for comrades, for vulnerable onlookers, for distant loyalties that may never be rewarded in fact but that thrive in the heart and sustain hope.
The thought brought tears to her eyes. She lay there in the dark, the sleeping girl enfolded in her arms, trying not to sob.
Again, let me place Downing among some of the others who write this period: He catches the mixed feelings of Germany with more variation than LeCarré's narrative of British Empire's collapse; he weaves tenderness and sacrifice with more gentleness and quite a bit more (ironic) sunshine than Alan Furst; and he summons the forlorn hopes of the Russian Revolution and the early Communist era, embedding it deftly in the magnificence of Russia's mythic and literary past.
This period of history is very hard to write with suspense, because we know so much about "what's going to happen," from the end of the war and the death of Adolf Hitler, to the grief of all of Europe in the postwar years, to American renewal out of the ashes of war. Hats off to Downing for making it work. When you've read this one, let me know what you think of the finale, would you please?