By Nicholas Shakespeare

Harcourt. 387 pp. $25

In 1982, when Leonid Brezhnev still ruled the Soviet Union and dissent was still ruthlessly suppressed, Billy Graham visited Moscow for a peace conference sponsored by the Russian Orthodox Church, which had an ignominious record of subservience to the regime. In exchange, Graham was given the chance to preach in the heart of the atheist state. Along with other foreign correspondents, I witnessed his Sunday sermon at Moscow's only Baptist church. He denounced sin but never mentioned religious persecution. When two brave souls rose in the balcony to hold up signs in support of the imprisoned, he studiously kept his eyes down. It was one of those quintessential moments when the moral courage of the oppressed stood in stark contrast to the silence of the visiting "free" Westerner, something that happened all too often throughout the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.

Precisely such a moment of moral cowardice, rendered in gut-wrenching detail, is the central event in Nicholas Shakespeare's brooding, introspective, deftly crafted novel Snowleg. The British writer's main character is Peter Hithersay, who, at 16, learns that his real father was a German whose path crossed briefly with that of Peter's British mother. On a trip to Leipzig, East Germany, to sing in a Bach festival in 1960, the young woman found herself suddenly confronted by an escaped political prisoner asking for help. She courageously offered him shelter for a night. In the morning, the police came and took the escapee away, and she was hastily sent out of the country. Back in England, she married, and brought up Peter as an English child, only revealing her secret to him when she felt he was mature enough.

Peter becomes a passionate student of German, looking to discover the German part of his identity and even, somehow, to find his namesake, his father. Since his mother never learned the prisoner's last name, Peter faces seemingly insurmountable odds in his quest. But he moves to Hamburg to study medicine and takes the first opportunity to visit Leipzig. It's 1983, the Berlin Wall is firmly in place, and Peter manages to cross it by briefly joining a troupe of student actors performing at the Leipzig Trade Fair. He meets a young woman with a mysterious name, Snowleg. Her world is spinning, too, since she has just learned her brother is leaving for the West and, as a result, she has been denied admittance to a postgraduate program in psychiatry at Karl Marx University.

This leads to a night of passion as the two disoriented young people stumble into each other's arms, and it sets the stage for the subsequent betrayal. Unlike his mother, who had instinctively reached out to her East German, Peter freezes instead of standing up for Snowleg, effectively abandoning her to the Stasi. Without revealing too much, suffice it to say that in the hands of a less skillful writer, this scene would trigger only anger at Peter. But the beauty of Shakespeare's account is that, as a reader, you both hate Peter for his cowardice and find his behavior utterly convincing. Peter immediately recognizes how low he has sunk, but it's too late. "His lips felt seared. The air was misshapen, unbreathable," Shakespeare writes. "He had flunked." Convincing, too, is Peter's subsequent journey through a Purgatory on Earth as nothing he does can relieve his guilt, his desperate need for atonement.

Estranged from England and his family, Peter continues to live in Germany, working as a doctor and drifting from one listless affair to another. He is lonely, despondent and, at one point, seeks refuge in drugs. When the Wall comes down and Germany is unified, he still sees little hope of setting things right. Like his mother before him, he didn't even learn his East German lover's full name, and his search both for her and his father appears doomed to failure. That's when Shakespeare allows fate to intervene, with a coincidence that isn't hard to believe. The only unconvincing point of the tale is Peter's inability to put two and two together and see where events are rapidly leading.

But 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. As one minor British character points out, East Germany -- now thankfully defunct -- boasted "the vilest regime in the Communist bloc." Vilest of all was the behavior that such regimes routinely induced in their terrified citizens and foreign visitors confronted with unfamiliar moral dilemmas. Most people would prefer to forget how they behaved in those situations, but Shakespeare's Snowleg can't help but remind us of the good, the bad and the shameful. *

Andrew Nagorski is a senior editor at Newsweek International and the author of "Last Stop Vienna," a novel about the early years of Hitler and the Nazi movement.