Snowleg by Nicholas Shakespeare
Peter is 16 when the novel begins and his mother feels duty-bound to tell him that his father is not his father and that the man who sired him was an escaped political prisoner she had met briefly in Leipzig in 1960. Peter who adores his father more than his mother is thrown into a tailspin. He goes back to his boarding school—where’s he’s been obsessed with Englishness, including Arthur and his knights, particularly Sir Belvedere—and signs up for a German class. His friends tease him—they associate Germans with Nazis and losers and ignorant oafs. He takes a summer job as tutor to a young girl in Hamburg and then goes back—to the surprise of his friends and the consternation of his parents—to study medicine—pediatrics, which is what he is told his real father had wanted to do.
Driven to reconsider who he is, Peter becomes German, rarely visiting or contacting his parents, developing only superficial relationships. Until friends convince him to travel with them to Leipzig to help in their mime act. He goes, not admitting to himself that he will look for his father, which in any case will be difficult since he has no surname. In Leipzig he meets and is overwhelmed by a girl (Snowleg, actually Snjólaug: an Icelandic name her grandmother uses) and then denies her in a crucial moment, returning to Hamburg shaken and forever changed, not exactly realizing (as the reader does) that he has relived his mother's experience.
Shakespeare’s evocation of place is exquisite. East Germany is both brooding political menace—it is 1983 and Walter Ulbricht has morphed into Erich Honeker and the Stasi is everywhere—and nostalgia for a simpler, quieter world ("cobbled streets with no advertisements”). Peter’s life spins even further out of control as he conducts an affair with an artist 10 years his senior, begins injecting drugs to keep up the pace, and flunks his final exams. When he picks himself up he re-enters medical school, this time in gerontology (he’s good at his work, poor at his life). There are more and more women, none of whom reach him, all of whom he lets down.
At this point we’re halfway into the novel and the suspense has been perfect, but the reader knows Peter will have to resolve both the matter of his father and that of Snowleg. I almost quit reading there, knowing the unraveling would be far messier than the building up—as it was—but believe it or not, Shakespeare sustains it to the very last word. There are more twists and turns than your average plot and far more coincidence, but it worked for me. I literally could put it down. It works a political thriller and as a relatively conventional romance. If his language is sometimes over the top, I forgive him.