Several “homecomings” are chronicled in this earnest, carefully layered novel from the German author.
The narrator and protagonist, World War II survivor Peter Debauer, repeatedly “returns” from idyllic visits to Switzerland, where his doting grandparents run a small publishing company; reunions with his somewhat distant widowed mother and with a sympathetic woman encountered during his travels; a reconnection with the young son born of his failed marriage; and, in the novel’s extended climax, a painful confirmation of long-held suspicions about the father he never knew. The mystery that compels and focuses Peter’s wandering attention is linked to a novel (published by his grandparents) about a German soldier’s homeward journey, from which crucial pages are missing. Realizing that the fictional soldier (Karl Hanke) is reenacting the experiences of Odysseus in Homer’s epic, and that Hanke’s experiences oddly echo some of his own, Peter broadens his search for details about his mother’s marriage, his father’s wartime ordeal and his own occluded relationship to both parents. What he learns informs his ultimate homecoming and his acknowledgement of the limits of how much we can ever know. This (literally) searching novel is laden with intriguing ideas, only some of which are persuasively dramatized. Schlink (Self’s Deception, 2007, etc.) skillfully handles complex Homeric parallels, pacing Peter’s discoveries expertly. A moving scene in which young Peter realizes that his grandparents are preparing for their deaths, and a stinging conversation with his mother (who does not want to remember the past), are deftly counterpointed against thematically ironic use of Nazi history and the later destruction of the Berlin Wall. But while the best pages offer an absorbing portrayal of a sobering quest for self-knowledge, the novel is redundant, and it drags.
Not equal to Schlink’s best.