I have to admit that I have never got around to reading The Reader, the novel which brought Bernhard Schlink to the notice of an English-reading public, even though it sits on the bookshelf waiting to be picked up. Schlink also writes crime novels, featuring his private detective Gerhard Selb (or Self in English) and I’ve read a couple of these, one in English translation and one in the original German (much better). Homecoming is his latest novel, first published a year or so ago in Germany, but just made available in English this month and , I have to admit, that I rather lazily turned to the translation. But what drew me to this book was predominantly the subject matter. At a time when the post-war generation of writers (such as Grass) are beginning to die out, there has been some debate about whether German literature should now move on from dealing with the trauma and guilt of the Third Reich, turning its back on the past and look forward to a united, European future. And just at that point Schlink enters the public debate with a novel that closely ties post-unification Germany with its more troubled history, suggesting perhaps that Germany is not yet ready to forget, after all.
The uncomplicated plot of Homecoming masks a far more complex book that deals with trauma, loss, deception, identity, legacy, guilt and many other major themes as well. It articulately expresses the fact that Germany will/should never be able to turn its back on the past, it cannot un-invent the legacy that facsism has bequeathed it, whilst at the same time needing to find a way forward without wallowing in that past. I found this a deeply intelligent piece of writing that explores complex, even contradictory, ideas in a touching, honest and politically pertinent way.