SChlink’s novel The Woman on the Stairs was translated from the German by Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmidt. The story is about love – obsessive and enduring and creativity.
The story starts in Sydney where a middle aged lawyer comes across a painting which was thought to be lost of “The woman on the Stairs” and it reignites a time at the beginning of his career in Germany. The artist Schwind, commissioned by Gundlach to paint his wife, falls in love with her. The love triangle is complicated when the lawyer, representing Schwind in a disagreement with Gundlach, also falls in love with Irene, the woman on the Stairs.
Irene leaves Gundlach for Schwind and again the lawyer becomes involved in the deal to return Irene to her husband. Schwind wants the painting back Gundlach wants Irene. The lawyer alerts Irene and persuades her to go with him, taking the painting with her. Irene leaves them all and isn’t heard of again until the painting resurfaces.
The unnamed narrator delays his return to Germany in order to find the annonymous donor of the painting whom he assumes is Irene. He finds her in an isolated place on the coast north of Sydney. Lured by the painting Gundlach and Schwind also arrive. You’ll have to read it for the outcome and I won’t spoil it for you.
The lawyer – the narrator is a workaholic, disconnected from the world and we remain disconnected from him although we see the world through his eyes as he describes the landscape to us but in a way that doesn’t give us a sense of place yet we know exactly where we are for example on a ferry trip on the harbour he says:
The ferry went past a small island, fortified long ago for an imaginary war with some imaginary enemy, past rusty, gray, bobbing warships, past waterfront houses where life was cheerful and light, past woods, a swimming beach here and there, and a marina.
This leaves us with no doubt as to where we are and knowing Sydney Harbour I know that the small island is Fort Dennison but the lack of detail and emotion serves to demonstrate how disconnected the lawyer is from the world. When his wife died he continued to work. The only impetuous moment in his life was his dealing with Irene.
Unlike the lawyer the other characters are well drawn and I would say it is a character driven work. There are a number of questions that the reader ponders such as what is the crime that Irene committed. Some of these questions are answered at the end whilst others linger.
Would I recommend this book – I think it would make a great film and I enjoyed reading it so yes – I would say it is worth a read although I don’t know how much enjoyment I got from knowing the setting.
The author is a lawyer who works between Germany and the USA. The inspiration for the painting is Ema – Nude on a Staircase painted by Gerhard Richter which is held in the NSW Art Gallery.