Peter Debauer, the narrator and protagonist of Bernhard Schlink's new novel, Homecoming, is a bland sort and he knows it. I am slow to react: I neither rejoice when something wonderful comes my way nor despair when I meet a setback, he says. He may even enjoy being boring, having been born in Germany after the chaos and horror of World War II. As a boy, he spent summers with his paternal grandparents in Switzerland, and watched while they created a series called Novels for Your Reading Pleasure and Entertainment. Peter was warned never to read the manuscripts but as a teenager, he read one novel, then forgot it. Later, as a grown man, he straightens out some pages he'd used to make toy soldiers as a boy, and begins to read the printed sides.
What he reads are fragments of the novel he'd forgotten. The story, based loosely on the Odyssey, is of a fleeing German soldier and his colleagues, and Peter begins a years' long search to find the author. This quest will shake up everything he thought he knew about himself and his heritage, for the author is, in fact, his father, who left his mother after the war. John de Baur is also a bit of a monster, as he embraces a philosophy of horrifying moral relativism that would excuse everything from his abandonment of his child and his child's mother to genocide. Yet Peter is fascinated by him.
Homecoming is Schlink's first new work since the 1997 U.S. publication of The Reader, which became a bestseller after being chosen for Oprah's Book Club. The writing here, translated from the German by Michael Henry Heim, is as restrained as its hero. Because it's so subtle, the impact of its more dramatic moments might not strike the reader until late in the book, when Peter and a group of his fellow students he's come to audit de Baur's classes at Columbia University are stranded at a resort in upstate New York. What happens there throws into relief all the turmoil of Peter's life, including the impact of a war he wasn't even around to experience. Homecoming is a quiet and devastating examination of a man's past, and his attempt to understand it.
Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.