Bernhard Schlink (translated from the German by Michael Henry Heim)
Orion Books Ltd
2008 (German original 2006), 331p
From my husband’s shelves
Peter lives in post WW2 Germany and every summer he travels to Switzerland by train to spend it with his grandparents. His father died before he was born and his mother has no contact with his grandparents other than to send him there every summer. His grandparents are publishers, editing and publishing novels for entertainment and pleasure. Peter is always warned never to read them when they give him bound galleys for his schoolwork (paper being a luxury) but when he is 13 he breaks his promise not to and becomes utterly entranced by the story of Karl, a POW returning to his wife after escaping. He finds that his wife believed him dead and has married again. It’s only a partial manuscript so Peter becomes interested in the ending which he searches for during future visits to his grandparents. He never finds the book that the galley would’ve become and eventually he forgets the story.
That is until he is an adult, graduated from college and taking a house for himself. Some of his belongings he has wrapped in pages from the same manuscript and the obsession rears its head again. From parts of the manuscript, Peter is able to work out that some of it took place in a building near to where he lives and he immediately goes to the building to see if he can find out more, perhaps about the author who may have lived in the building at some stage, knowing it so well. There he meets Barbara who lives in the building now.
Peter’s obsession with the story of Karl and his comrades escaping the POW camp becomes all consuming, taking him across Europe to visit and meet with people he thinks may have some answers for him. It will lead him to take jobs and even travel all the way to New York City in America and may give him closure on something that he has had questions about his entire life.
So June was coming to a close and I was fast realising that I hadn’t read anything set in Germany/by a German author/even had a vague passing reference to Germany for Shannon’s Around the World in 12 Books Challenge. I flicked through the library catalogue but nothing there really grabbed me (and the one that did was checked out) so I asked my husband if he had any books set in Germany. “What about The Reader?” he said. Awesome, but I’ve read that. So he handed me a couple of other Bernhard Schlink books to choose from and based on the synopsis (which I loved) I chose this one.
I loved the beginning of the book, which sets up Peter’s journeys to his grandparents house, the long lazy summers he spends there hearing his grandfather’s stories and just generally enjoying his post-wartime summers. The manuscript that Peter breaks his promise and reads on a train ride home after one summer visit drew me in as well. The idea of a man having escaped from a POW camp and trekked home to return to his wife only to find that she has a whole other life? Fascinating! Like Peter, I wanted to know the ending. I wanted to read the manuscript. And actually, as this book went on, I wanted to stop reading this book and read the book within the book.
Homecoming isn’t a long novel at 331p but oh did it feel like it at times – the last 150 pages in particular when Peter is in New York. There were parts of that which just didn’t make sense as a reader, particularly the segment spent at a remote hotel with several others from a class he is taking as part of his quest to discover the truth about the manuscript and a key figure in his life. It goes on for pages but relates little to the plot and accomplishes nothing. I found adult Peter a bit frustrating at times, the way in which he structured his whole life around his quest for more knowledge. In the end it turned out that he discovered some very important things but there was no actual pay off for these discoveries! He didn’t confront the relevant person and get answers and I found the ending particularly unsatisfactory in terms of answers received for the amount of wasted energy and time. He put his whole life on hold, including leaving behind a woman he loved (and one he’d already lost once) and was too weak to even demand the story.
What I really did enjoy about this book was the beginning – Peter’s different journeys to his grandparents house each summer, the descriptions of the house and surrounding village, the things they did, the people that lived nearby. That first part of the novel definitely shone for me. His grandparents lived over the border in Switzerland and Schlink nicely showcases how Germany is a country that is trying to heal after the war and also the problems that are coming from that whereas Switzerland doesn’t seem to have such problems. Peter remembers the summers in Switzerland as a time of freedom, of being carefree. I really enjoyed the relationship he had with his grandparents despite this limited contact and the genuine affection between them.
Our copy of this book has a little sticker on the front that says ‘Recommended for reading groups’ and I have to say that I agree. I feel as though the reading experience of this one would have been enhanced by having others to discuss it with – there are a lot of things that are up for debate here, such as war romance, illegitimacy, lying to children, family relationships, post-war rebuilding and structure, ethics, love, obsession etc. Reading it alone I found that I had things I wanted to talk about but I quickly lost interest in them by having no one to actually talk them over with – husband bought this some years ago but hasn’t read it yet. He confessed to me that he found the first 50 pages very slow and difficult to get into – this was my favourite part of the book! I found the rest of it extremely so, so if he found the beginning difficult, it seems unlikely he’ll ever finish it!
Homecoming isn’t a bad novel, it’s well written and the translation seems smooth and well done. But it felt very circular, like Peter was just endlessly going around in circles without ever changing or getting the answers he seemed to need and that myself as the reader was trapped into those circles with him.
Book #120 of 2012
Homecoming was read as part of my participation in the Around the World in 12 Books Challenge. June was Germany.