Like many readers, I very much enjoyed Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader when I read it quite some time ago. For some reason, however, I had not picked up any of his other books in the intervening years. The Woman on the Stairs, first published in German in 2014 and in English translation by Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmidt in 2016, is described as ‘a tale of obsession, possession and a mystery painting’, and its description certainly intrigued me enough to buy it.
Just as mysteriously as a painting disappeared, it is found again, donated anonymously to a gallery in Sydney. At this revelation, ‘the art world is stunned but so are the three men who loved the woman in the painting, the woman on the stairs.’ These men, one after another, manage to track her down to a dilapidated cottage on an isolated headland near Sydney. ‘Here they must try to untangle the lies and betrayals of their shared past – but time is running out.’
I did enjoy some of the descriptions in The Woman on the Stairs. Schlink describes the painting like so: ‘A woman descends a staircase. The right foot lands on the lower tread, the left grazes the upper, but is on the verge of its next step. The woman is naked, her body pale; her hair is blonde, above and below; the crown of her head gleams with light. Nude, pale and blonde – against a grey-green backdrop of blurred stairs and walls, the woman moves lightly, as if floating, towards the viewer. And yet her long legs, ample hips, and full breasts give her a sensual weight.’
The Woman on the Stairs is told using very short chapters, the majority of which consist of just two or three pages. The prose here did not grab me at all; I found it rather matter-of-fact, and consequently, some of the chapters felt rather dull. The plot was flimsy and stretched in places, particularly given the space in the novel which was devoted to certain elements. The narrator of the piece, a self-important lawyer, did not feel realistic. Despite the first person perspective, there was a sense of detachment and impersonality throughout. The pace also felt problematic; it plods along from one chapter to the next, and nothing about it was particularly interesting. I did not connect in the slightest with either the characters or the slowly ensuing story.
There is often no distinction between past and present here, and consequently, the book becomes rather muddled. I found that there is barely any depth within The Woman on the Stairs; it is rather a superficial novel. Indeed, there is barely anything else within the plot which is not suggested or baldly stated in the blurb. The love story element, which was horribly inevitable, is wildly overblown, and highly rushed.
Whilst I was impressed with The Reader, there seems to be very little, if any, of the power which suffuses its plot and pages in this particular tome. In fact, if I were to read both The Woman on the Stairs and The Reader without knowing which was the earlier book, I would select the former; it feels unpolished, and almost as though it is a first draft. I found the novel lacklustre, and whilst I did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did The Reader, I still expected that it would be well written, taut, and poignant. Unfortunately, none of these are words which I would use describe the novel. The prose is too plodding, and the dialogue offered very little, no matter which character was speaking. There is no emotion here, and I have come away from the novel wondering why I bothered to read it in its entirety.