Review Blog

Dec 26 2016

The woman on the stairs by Bernhard Schlink

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Hachette, 2016. ISBN 9781474604994
(Age: 15+) Bernhard Schlink's novel, written in 2016 and in translation from German, is a sleekly woven tale of one woman, Irene, the gloriously beautiful and enigmatic Irene, whose portrait was painted by the artist, Schwind, as she stood still on a staircase, for the husband, businessman Gundlach, and subsequently stolen by Irene herself, with the help of the besotted lawyer, for whom, Irene claimed, she was the 'damsel in distress'.
Many years late all three men come together to Gundlach's house to a frail Irene, living in a ramshackle shack at the bottom of a hill, a farm on the New South Wales coast, accessible more easily by boat from Sydney. This is where Irene had been living for many years, having chosen to live away from the old Europe in the freshness and freedom of Australia.
The lover, as narrator, having finally traced Irene, was determined to find out what had happened, why she had abandoned him in their youth, and why the painting, apparently kept by her for many years, had been donated anonymously to the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
This entire novel is dream-like, captivatingly strange, yet calmly rational at times, in a sense reflecting the woman herself. Setting his background tale in a Europe of the last century, Schlink literally catapults us into the modern world, and an Australian one at that, the narrator flying in a helicopter to the Australian countryside, depicted in such stark contrast to the mannered nature of old Europe, admittedly historically an unsettled political world.
Dreamlike, musing on the meaning of relationships, art, time and love, Schlink captivates the reader, taking us into the rational mind of the story-teller who seeks to unravel the mystery of the woman's disappearance and the reasons for her action, that was bound to summon the three men.
Absolutely engrossing, this novel forces us to consider love, loyalty, art, relationships, friendship and ultimately, the meaning of life. As life slips away, the dying Irene faces the unknown, helped by the gentle kindness of the would-be lover of the past. The ideas, the words, the passion, all stay with the reader for days, Schlink capturing so many of the puzzles about why and how we live our lives, musing on different relationships, and on the deeply moving nature of art, on what life means, on love and on loyalty.
Liz Bondar

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