In Ben Fergusson’s An Honest Man our narrator Ralf revisits a particularly significant year in his life. The year is 1989 and Ralf is eighteen and lives with his family in West Berlin. Growing up in a bilingual household (his mother is English), Ralf has always felt like a bit of an outsider. In a few months him and his friends will part ways and go to separate universities (Ralf whose passion is geology plans to study in England). Until then they spend their days and nights relaxing: they go to the swimming pool, on nature excursions, drink together etc. Ralf’s routine is interrupted by Oz, born to Turkish parents and a few years older than him.
As Ralf struggles to reconcile himself with his growing attraction, and feelings, towards Oz, he also learns that Oz is keeping tabs on one of his neighbours, Tobias Rose. When Oz asks him for help Ralf finds himself uncovering life-altering secrets. As Ralf’s relationship with Oz deepens he is forced to question where is own loyalties lie, and who is willing to betray.
While the story does delve into espionage, the focus remains primarily on Ralf. His relationship with Oz sees him embarking on a journey of self-discovery. The approach of university also alters his perceptions about who he is and who he wants to become. When a shocking discovery jeopardises what little normalcy his life contained, Ralf becomes further enmeshed in a web of deceit.
The story is very much a coming of age. To begin with Ralf is a rather sheltered and somewhat naive boy, and as the story progresses, and he starts seeing with new eyes his family and friends, he becomes more of an adult.
Ben Fergusson portrays believably fallible characters. Ralf, somewhat understandably given that he has a lot to contend with, can be rather self-centred and bratty. More than once I experienced second-hand embarrassment at what he says or does. His relationship with Oz is filled with a young sort of longing, with plenty of awkward flirting (they talk about their favourite pasta shape) and even some tender moments. Oz’s introverted nature lends him an air of mystery, and readers, alongside Ralf, will find themselves wanting to learn more about him.
Ralf’s group of friends was also solidly depicted and we get to see how his relationship with each one of his friends differs. His friends all have their own backstory and clear-cut personalities.
Ralf’s relationship with his family plays a big role in the narrative. Although we might not like or forgive Ralf’s parents, Fergusson does give these characters some nuance.
What Fergusson truly excels at is brining West Berlin to life. The setting is vividly rendered, and Fergusson creates and maintains a rather bittersweet atmosphere. Ralf’s narration is filled with youthful descriptions and observations. His narrative is sensuous, as he always seem to loose himself in the bodies of those around him (noting the way the light illuminates someone’s hair or face).
The ending was a bit rushed for my taste, and part of me wished for a more satisfying confrontation between Ralf and certain other characters.
Although this is a slow-burn kind of story, I finished this novel in one day. Ralf’s story is absorbing, and Fergusson examines complex themes in a compelling manner. If you enjoy coming of ages, books by John Boyne, or stories set in times of political divide (such as Confession with Blue Horses and Swimming in the Dark), chances are you will like this book.
My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)