Bernhard Schlink
The Woman on the Stairs

You’d be forgiven for thinking, from its cover – sepia-soaked, rough wooden stairs ascending to darkness – that this must be a ghost story. What’s missing from the picture is the woman: beautiful, spirited, naked Irene.

In the mid-1970s, a wealthy German industrialist commissions a painting of his wife, Irene. Artist and patron fall out, first over Irene, then over the painting. A young lawyer – the novel’s nameless narrator – is hired to settle the dispute, but he too becomes captivated by Irene before she disappears, and the painting with her.

Forty years later, the lawyer, in Sydney on business, discovers the painting, Woman on Staircase, in the Art Gallery of NSW and traces its donor, Irene, to the isolated Red Cove, a half-day’s drive north of Sydney. There they are joined, in short order, by the artist and Irene’s ex-husband, both seeking to regain possession of the painting – and its subject?

At the heart of the novel is a motif highly reminiscent of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader: a narrator haunted by an early experience of love at the hands of a manipulative woman who abandons him. As in The Reader, there’s a sense that the narrator, in his subsequent life, has been merely going through the motions, holding himself aloof from feeling. Now the narrator of The Woman on the Stairs – priggish, haughty, withholding to the point of cruelty – remains obsessed by the memory of Irene, who stands as his life’s signal failure, a rare loss of control.

Part Two of the novel, in which the three men assemble at Irene’s place on the coast to lay the ghosts of their shared past, has a wooden, theatrical feel. It’s talky in the way that melodrama is, the characters taking turns to orate and fulminate. “You aren’t seriously trying to tell us–” interjects Irene’s ex-husband as she outlines her years of exile. If the prose and plot are clunky, well… Schlink is a novelist more interested in morality than artistry.

The narrator leaves Red Cove a changed man: having always despised women’s tears (“that cheap trick women use to put us in the wrong”), he has himself learnt to cry. Irene has railed, throughout the novel, against the roles in which men have sought to confine her: trophy, muse, damsel in distress. She cannot, however, escape the role in which the didactic Schlink ultimately casts her, as the mechanism of his narrator’s epiphany.  FL

W&N, 288pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 19, 2016 as "Bernhard Schlink, The Woman on the Stairs".

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Reviewer: FL