An Honest Man by Ben Fergusson

An Honest Man is a novel about love and Cold War tensions, set in West Berlin in 1989. Ralf is eighteen and is waiting for his exam results to see if he’s going to university in England. He and his friends spend their time together, enjoying the days of summer before they all part ways. When Ralf meets Oz at a swimming pool, he is intrigued by the man, and they are drawn closer as Oz reveals dangerous secrets about possible spies and divided loyalties. Suddenly Ralf must question what he knows about his family and his neighbours and who is really telling the truth.

The novel is a mix of low key Cold War drama, with the threat of people quietly spying on you, and coming of age novel, with a main character falling in love as he is about to leave home. This gives it a real focus on characters and interpersonal relationships, and it has a good level of drama and tension as well as details about German and English culture around the fall of the Wall as well as the lives of teenagers at this point. Ralf is a gripping protagonist, flawed in the way he lashes out but also sympathetic in his sense of betrayal and confusion at the situation he has been caught in. His narrative has twists and turns, and is cleverly written to withhold exactly what happens until the end.

This is historical fiction with a focus on the people and relationships, about someone growing up and falling suddenly in love whilst also dealing with the tense political and social realities of divided Berlin. The tense plot drives it forward, but it is the story of Ralf and Oz which gives it a real heart.