Synopses & Reviews
When sixteen-year-old Peter Hithersay discovers that his father is not the affable Englishman married to his mother, but an East German political dissident with whom she had a brief affair in the 1960s, he abandons Winchester for Leipzig in search of his past. There he encounters a lovely young woman who is beginning to question the way her society is governed, and Peter falls immediately in love with her. But their romance ends quickly and badly when his scheme to smuggle her out of the country goes awry, and he returns to England, only to spend the next nineteen years in a desultory career and a series of perfunctory affairs.
When the two Germanies are reunited, Peter goes back to look for the woman he has never stopped loving. But the only clues he has are the nickname he gave her, Snowleg, and the relentless archives of the state that drove them apart.
Nicholas Shakespeare is on his home ground in this beautifully written, informed, sensitive story about the unassailable dictates of love and politics.
"The personal and the political clash in this sometimes haunting but often baffling novel about Peter Hithersay, an English teenager, and his one-night encounter with an East German girl, known to him only by her nickname, 'Snowleg,' in 1983. She begs him to take her back to the West; for reasons he can't quite fathom himself and which will haunt him for the next 20 years he refuses (indeed, he publicly rejects her) and loses his chance at what appears to be love at first sight. Peter may have been re-creating his mother's experience: she had a brief affair with an East German (Peter was the result) and never saw him again, and Peter's trip behind the Iron Curtain is driven by the desire to learn something, anything, about his German father. Later, he essentially gives up England and his affable family, becoming a doctor in West Germany, where he strives (mostly unsuccessfully) to build meaningful relationships of his own. The strongest narrative thread, Peter's search for Snowleg, is compelling enough, but accounts for a small fraction of the plot. Shakespeare (The Dancer Upstairs) deftly captures both the paranoia and the material and cultural poverty of East Germany as well as Peter's existential struggle to find his place in the world, but the haphazard story line fails to compel." Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Shakespeare here weds a formal, detached prose style to a deeply romantic theme; the result is a powerful, ethereal love story....A beautifully written, utterly compelling story of love and politics." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Shakespeare has constructed a moving story that speaks volumes about an era and a political system that is rapidly slipping into the recesses of our memory." Washington Post Book World
"The novel moves at a cool, deliberate pace; nothing rushes the author (though sometimes we wish it would).... What saves the book from total collapse is the way in which Shakespeare draws us into the lives of his characters and their personal and political quests." San Francisco Chronicle
The award-winning writer of The Dancer Upstairs presents this beautifully written, sensitive story that spans the Cold War in 1960s East Germany to the 1980s, about one man's longing for a love he had the chance to grasp but failed to take.
About the Author
Nicholas Shakespeare is the author of The Dancer Upstairs, selected by the American Libraries Association as the best novel of 1997, and an acclaimed biography of Bruce Chatwin. Named one of Granta magazine's "Best Young British Novelists" in 1993, Shakespeare lives in Wiltshire, England.
Reading Group Guide
Questions and Topics for Discussion Q> What forces shape the identities of the characters in Snowleg? How are their choices and their personalities affected by their pasts and their families? What does the novel say about the patterns of our lives? For example, how is Peter's mother's life, and as a result Peter's own life, shaped by her one night with Peter's father? Q> As soon as he finds out about his German biological father, Peter begins to consciously struggle against his "Englishness," to become more German. What is stereotypically English about Peter? How do such national characteristics get passed on, and how much of our national identities do we choose? Is our "Americanness" an inescapable product of our upbringings or do we choose to act American? Q> What do you think it says about Peter that he identifies with Sir Bedevere and "the paternal spirit embodied by King Arthur and his chivalric knights" (10)? What is the author saying about chivalry and gallantry? Do you agree with Frau Weschke's dying words, "It's all right. None of us are very chivalrous or very brave" (221)? What do you make of the fact that the great failure of Peter's chivalry, his rejection of Snowleg, actually turns out to have saved them both from Morneweg's scheme to arrest them at the train station? Q> Discuss the pivotal passage where Peter rejects Snowleg at the dinner at the Hotel Astoria (124). Why does he do it? What happens to him at that one moment? That one night, like Peter's mother's one night with his father, directs the course of the rest of his life. Have you had moments like this in your life? Do you think such moments change our lives because they are important, or because of our belief in their importance? Q> Discuss Peter's problematic relationships with women after Snowleg. The author writes that "When lovers first meet they expose their tenderest nerves to the shock of an intimate breath. But as soon as they get to know each other there is a tightening of the armor" (152). Why does Peter seem to wear this armor constantly? Is he afraid of betraying another woman, or simply unable to be emotionally intimate because of his fixation on Snowleg? Q> Why does Peter switch from pediatrics to gerontology (see page 174)? What is the significance of the child he fails to save, who appears to him in a dream with Snowleg's face (161)? Does the shift from dealing with the very young to the very old signal a shift in him? How do deaths spur other characters to take action or make changes in their lives (for example, the death of Uwe's grandmother)? Q> How do the Stasi's tactics work? Why do you think they are so effective at controlling the citizens, gathering intelligence about them and spreading disinformation? Uwe remarks that "If you refused to work for the Stasi it rarely led to negative consequences. Of course, Morneweg wanted to get a new informer. But if he couldn't intimidate or embarrass her, there was little else he could do" (338). If this is true, why are there so many Stasi collaborators? Why don't more people stand up to the Stasi as Snowleg does? Q> Snowleg is filled with evocative descriptions of the novel's settings, from the English countryside of Peter's childhood, where "the chalky soil glowed up through grass and lines of beech" (12), to the "grey chemical dust on the rooftops" of post-reunification East Germany (237). How does the author use physical description to create or shift the mood and atmosphere of the novel's sections? Were there any descriptive passages that you found particularly striking or effective? Q> Animals figure prominently in the novel. How does the author use animals as symbols or metaphors? For example, why is Snowleg repeatedly compared to a giraffe? What is the significance of the scene in which Peter and Theo ride in a truck that hits a deer (112)? What about the Stasi dogs? Do Shakesepare's animals teach us anything about his humans? Q> The author treats Uwe much more sympathetically than either of the other Stasi characters. How do you judge him? Do you think he atones at all for his misdeeds by helping Peter? Q> What do you think of Uwe's explanation of the Stasi on page 341: "We can all identify with the victims. . . . What about the perpetrators? [The East German system] was formed against fascists and extermination camps. . . . To keep our people safe we felt we had to know everything about them and to make this knowedge a respectable, responsible activity. And that's where we went wrong." Do you find this convincing as a partial excuse for the Stasi's actions? Is there a comparison to be made with the current state of this country, where the proper balance of security and privacy are being debated furiously? Q> Discuss the ambivalence of the East Germans toward the reunification of their country. Renate tells Peter that "Ossis are watchful, like animals in a forest. But Wessis are lost. You don't know where you are. The forest is inside" (280). What does she mean by this? Why would those living under a totalitarian regime have a more secure inner life than citizens of a freer society? Frau Lube says, "The Wall was a part of me. I knew how far to go. Now I can't handle what's happening. It's too fast. . . . If you behave badly no-one cares" (264). What do both of these quotes suggest about the difficulties of adjusting to freedom?
Copyright © 2004 Written by Ben White