40 year old Will is a struggling actor in 1975 in Chicago. He was adopted by an American family following the murder of his mother in Berlin near the end of World War II. His attempts to conceal his background and the details of his mother's death have been so successful that he has blocked out much of it from himself. Will begins to see a hypnotherapist, Alecia, in an attempt to recover his lost memories. From the start of the book, Will is under siege: a car attempts to run him down, his files are stolen from his therapist, and a man chases him through the streets of Chicago. Knowing that Will's life is in danger, Alecia transports Will's mind back to Berlin, and we, the readers, are there with young Willi, sharing his horror. The majority of the remainder of the book depicts Willi's life with his mother, younger brother, and several family friends as they attempt to survive while Allied bombs explode around them.
Willi's mother is an alcoholic, and she would be less than capable of taking care of her young children in even the best of circumstances. Willi's relationship with his mother is the heart of the story, and we see this relationship change as Willi becomes increasingly suspicious of his mother's connection to the Gestapo. She is "like Berlin, broken and ruined, something great gone terribly wrong." He's furious at her weaknesess, but still desperate for her motherly love and affection.
The author's depiction of war time terror is incredible. My heart raced right along with Willi's as he attempts to survive both the Allied bombs and his fellow Germans who attempt to kill him. He finds the incinerated body of a loved one, and he watches as a friend is tortured, mutilated and killed by Nazis. The story races along as we await the murder of his mother. The only question is: who killed her and why? I thought this was answered exceptionally well, in a way that was both shocking and heart-breaking.
I wish the story would have ended here. Instead, back in Will's present life, a twist is revealed. It irritated me because it seemed completely unnecessary and only there for shock value. Within a few paragraphs, the twist was "taken back," and I questioned its purpose even more strongly. A small quibble in an otherwise wonderfully written book.