Friday, March 14, 2008


I read Bernhard Schlink’s latest book, Homecoming, based on a brief blurb in USA Today’s Winter books preview: “Moral questions confront children of WWII parents; set in Germany.”

Based on this description, I was expecting something different than I found in Homecoming. Yes, the main character, Peter Debauer, does have parents who lived through WWII. Yes, the book takes place in Germany. But Schlink is a German himself, and the book was translated from German by Michael Henry Heim.

Although the novel is not what I expected—contemporary Germans confronting their cultural past (a topic addressed in Schlink's The Reader)—it does not disappoint.

Peter narrates his life, starting from his childhood visiting grandparents in Switzerland. The book has a leisurely pace; Peter is in no hurry to take the reader to a specific point or event. Yet, despite its meandering tone, I did not feel impatience with it because I did not know where the book was taking me. I have never been a fan of road trips, but the analogy applies with this book. It is not the destination that matters with Homecoming but the journey.

While visiting his grandparents, Peter obtains a partial galley copy of a “homecoming” story. He becomes obsessed with finding the end of the story and the book's author. The concept of homecoming drives the novel. Peter starts collecting tales of soldiers returning home from war, often to find their wives have moved on. The book constantly references the seminal homecoming story, The Odyssey.

The novel is also quite philosophical. Although I have never been a fan of philosophy and did not love The Odyssey when I read it in high school, I was not put off by these elements. In fact, I was intrigued by the concept of the “Iron Rule” introduced in the book. Whereas the Golden Rule is often stated as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the Iron Rule, which Peter suggests the Nazis lived by, is essentially be willing to endure yourself anything you would inflict on someone else.

With it’s emphasis on philosophy and the journey (another element of The Odyssey), Homecoming is not the kind of book I typically read. Yet, Schlink is a fine storyteller and, more than that, invites the reader to think beyond the book.

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