English schoolboy Peter Hithersay learns that his true father is not his mother's husband, but an East German dissident whom she met briefly in a music competition in Leipzig. Visiting Leipzig himself several years later in search of his father, Peter has a similar encounter with a young German woman nicknamed Snowleg (the only name he knows), but this ends badly and his other search is fruitless. It is not until nineteen years later, well after the Wall has fallen, that Peter visits Leipzig again and is able to find some resolution to both his quests.
This is a strongly narrated book, with an excellent sense of social atmosphere, mostly well-drawn characters, and enough mystery to keep one reading compulsively. Peter's life in between the two Leipzig visits, finding success as a doctor and lover but little happiness as a person, is especially convincing, although he is not very likeable in this phase. Probably the best part of the book comes just at the end of this nineteen-year sojourn when he takes a very old dying woman as a patient. Although the fact that she is able to give him the first clues to start him once more on the trail of Snowleg stretches coincidence a little far, the quality of the relationship itself is so tender that it doesn't matter.
But once he goes back to Leipzig to hunt for Snowleg, the texture changes. Mostly now he meets with strangers, interviewing them, looking for clues. Too much gets told; not enough shown. At the point where most novels would be concerned with emotional resolution, this one suddenly reverts to belated exposition. This alters the pace of the book to the point where even the beautiful and surprisingly subtle ending cannot work as it should. A pity, but it is an absorbing story even so.
I find myself thinking of Ian McEwan, most especially his ATONEMENT. There, as here, a single selfish action causes suffering which must wait several decades before it can be atoned for. In both books, too, it is left to the reader to judge whether the atonement is adequate, and I find this a little bit of a problem. But SNOWLEG, like the McEwan book and Shakespeare's earlier THE DANCER UPSTAIRS, is a serious novel in that it raises significant moral and political questions in personal terms.