Book Review: The Woman on the Stairs by Bernhard Schlink runs the gamut of emotions

Bernhard Schlink is a German lawyer and writer. His internationally best selling novel ‘The Reader’ became an Oscar winning film staring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. He lives in Berlin and New York and he takes us from Germany to Australia in his current novel The Woman on the Stairs.

The nameless narrator of this book held love and lust for a woman he’d briefly met via a connection linking three men and a beautiful painting. The story reflects how the three men and one woman become entangled in a relationship that by the end, has spanned over forty years.

The narrator, a German lawyer, becomes involved in a working relationship with a beautiful woman called Irene Gundlach; the boyfriend and man who painted her, Karl Schwind and her husband, Peter Gundlach.

Gundlach hires the lawyer to try and make peace with Schwind first, as we find out that Gundlach believes Schwind is sabotaging the painting of Irene, titled ‘Woman on the Stairs’ and he needs the lawyer to set things right. Schwind can’t let go of his painting, a seductive naked painting of Irene, he wants it back and he’ll do anything.

Finally Gundlach gets the lawyer to draw up a contract that will make his wife return to him. But, she has other ideas that leave them all behind. It’s a tad cliched with the woman running off with the younger man who painted her, but not all these stories have happy endings. The painting and Irene go missing but when the painting ends up in a gallery in Sydney years down the track, the three men will do anything to find out who now owns the painting.

The book itself is full of thought dialogue, I found it slow-moving to begin with, but Schlink definitely set the scene for us readers before the journey moves to Australia. You would be forgiven for forgetting the narrator did have a family of his own after the initial drama as it’s not something brought up too often until the end. There is a bit of ‘that was then, this is now’ complex underlining the main characters.

The story ends in Australia where the lawyer eventually reconnects with Irene, Gundlach and Schwind after forty years before taking a few twists and turns to the final end for one of the characters. The lawyer’s life changes after reconnecting with the past and it’s for the good. Discovery is a life changing occurrence and is a reminder to never give up on your dreams.

It’s poignant, lonely, regretful, love, happiness and relief, all filled in one book. The ending was summed up very well, it suited the storyline and for me, it felt like a dark cloud had lifted for the narrator.

“How can one define the value of something lost, if the person who has lost it doesn’t miss it?’.

The Woman on the Stairs is available now through Weidenfeld & Nicolson / Hachette Australia