Book review: The Woman on the Stairs by Bernhard Schlink

Wednesday, November 30, 2016 Permalink

German author (lawyer and former judge) Bernhard Schlink is probably best known for his book, The Reader, which was made into the popular film starring Kate Winslet and the Ralph Fiennes.

It’s a book I’ve not read (nor have I seen the film) but it’s on my ‘must read some day’ list, so I jumped at the chance to read his latest release, The Woman on the Stairs.

Book review: The Woman on the Stairs by Bernhard SchlinkThe Woman on the Stairs
by Bernhard Schlink
Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
on November 24th 2016
Source: Hachette Australia
Genres: Literary Fiction
ISBN: 9781474600668
Pages: 288

For decades the painting was believed to be lost.

But, just as mysteriously as it disappeared, it reappears, an anonymous donation to a gallery in Sydney. The art world is stunned but so are the three men who loved the woman in the painting, the woman on the stairs.

One by one they track her down to an isolated cottage in Australia.

Here they must try to untangle the lies and betrayals of their shared past - but time is running out.

The early part of this novel by Schlink unfolds across two timeframes. We’re there as our narrator comes across Woman on Staircase in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The painting comes as a surprise as the last time the man saw it he was representing its painter and in love with its subject.

As a young lawyer in Germany, our unnamed narrator meets painter Karl Schwind and his mistress Irene Gundlach. Schwind’s seeking access to the picture of Irene from Peter, Irene’s estranged husband (who commissioned the painting while they were still married) in order to repair various faults.

At the time I felt it was obvious the tussle was over Irene, rather than the painting itself. However later, I pondered if this was (in fact) the case.

Things end badly and many years pass. Our narrator is widowed with grandchildren when work brings him to Sydney. And to the gallery where he sees Schwind’s painting for the first time in many decades. Wondering how it came to be there, our narrator tracks down its owner – discovering Irene, now Irene Adler living on a remote (and fictitious) cove off the Australian coast.

Irene’s obviously unwell and ailing but is unsurprised by our narrator’s arrival. It seems incredibly fortuitous but the inclusion of her painting in the high profile exhibition brings all players together as Karl Schwind and Peter Gundlach also descend on Irene’s refuge almost half a century after they last crossed paths.

Although Irene and the affect she has on those around her is the subject of this book by Schlink, it’s very much about our narrator; and it’s through his relationship with Irene (then and now) that we come to understand him.

And (be warned) he’s not always particularly likeable. The novel’s written in first person from his point of view, so we’re privy to his every thought… including his lack of sympathy and empathy for others.

Crying: that cheap trick women use to put us in the wrong. I cannot stand it, and I thought highly of my wife for the fact that she stopped crying soon after we were married, because she understood that the crying game wasn’t fair, that it repulsed me, that I refused to play it. p 181

Our narrator’s obviously successful and enjoyed a good life, but his reunion with Irene has him reflecting on his life.

There was nothing I couldn’t do without, nothing others couldn’t do without me. In everything that lay before me I was replaceable. I was irreplaceable only in what lay behind. p 6

At times our narrator was so unlikeable, so self-absorbed and emotionally-stunted that it would be easy for readers to disengage. But the self-reflection, earnestness and sense of regret Schlink invests in him means the hope of redemption remains.

…. in the end she was just a woman with a life of her own. How courageously she had lived it; how timidly I had lived mine. p 192

Although the early part of this novel is set in Germany and there are references to the fall of the Berlin Wall, this book is predominantly set in Australia.

I enjoyed Schlink’s descriptions of the Opera House and Botanic Gardens (as well as the fictitious Red Cove and Rock Harbour) and our narrator’s enjoyment of the Gardens and its restaurant was quite refreshing.

Moving at quite a slow pace, the unfolding plot of this novel was intriguing rather than gripping. It’s beautifully written (and translated) however and offers up an unsentimental study of self-reflection and regret.

The Woman on the Stairs by Bernhard Schlink was published in Australia by Hachette and is now available.

I received a copy of this book for review purposes.


  • mothersandpapas
    December 1, 2016

    I saw this book recently and bookmarked it so glad to see your review.

    • Debbish
      December 1, 2016

      It’s a little slow, but quietly mesmerising… if that makes sense.

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