Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Book review: Homecoming by Bernhard Schlink

Homecoming, (the 2008 English translation of the 2006 German novel) by Bernhard Schlink, author of The Reader, is a convoluted tale of wishing and longing, of war and peace, of family and fable. Although the complicated novel stalls under its own weight towards the end, it manages to finish its journey and prove that home is truly where the heart is.

The narrator is one Peter Debauer, who grew up fatherless in Germany, in the aftermath of World War II. His mother is a cold, distant woman and adult Peter tells us that the best parts of his childhood were the summer vacations spent with his deceased father’s parents in Switzerland. Here he learns patience and quiet and calm affection and a love of literature that will set him on his life’s path. His retired grandparents supplement their pensions by editing fiction collections, and Peter is drawn to the post-war genre of homecoming. He is particularly enamored of one fragmented book about a soldier who escapes from a Russian war camp and fights his way home, only to learn that the wife he left behind has given him up for dead; Peter is able to read only a portion of this book and becomes obsessed with learning how the novel ends.

Peter’s quest for the book’s lost ending leads him through his life: spending time with his erstwhile stepson; discovering, losing and regaining his one true love; flourishing in a two-pronged career of publishing and academia; and finally connecting with the enigmatic, manipulative author of that homecoming novel - who may or may not be his own long-lost, presumed dead father.

Homecoming is not an easy book. What starts out as a delightful reminiscence becomes a quest story, then morphs into a classically-themed quest-within-a-quest, then changes to a nearly academic discussion of deconstructionism, justice, existentialism, the “iron rule” and the rise of post-war Germany, before finally exhausting itself into an almost happy ending. Schlink’s prose is engaging as Peter recalls his time with his paternal grandparents and then moves through his early adulthood, exploring neighborhoods, women and literature with delight. The scenes between Peter and his friend, lover and, finally, wife Barbara are genuine and heartfelt. I also enjoyed Peter’s discovery that the incomplete novel that so enraptured him was modeled on Homer’s Odyssey.

But when Homecoming shifted abruptly to in-depth scholarship, I was bumped right out of the narrative. Presumably this is done to demonstrate the intense immersion into deconstructionism that the narrator himself is going through – “the separation of a text from what the author meant it to say and its transformation into what the reader makes of it” – but it is disorienting, and a relief when the book turns away from the lecture and back to the story at hand.

There is no grand moment at the end of Homecoming, no sweeping revelation or riding off into the happily ever after. Peter Debauer, like most of us, does not get all his questions answered. Instead, Schlink ends his novel realistically, his protagonist returning home, quest over, to an imperfect but good life. It’s an affecting finish, human and untidy, and shows the author's considerable skill at reconnecting the reader with the characters.

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