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Stories leave questions unanswered

Tales of curious son and soldier could be more smoothly sewn

A third of the way through his new book, 'Homecoming,' Bernhard Schlink's main character, Peter Debauer, muses over a conversation with a young boy.

'I did not know that children think the hard questions they ask are easy and thus expect easy answers to them, and that they are disappointed when they get cautious, complex answers.'

Likewise, readers who relished Schlink's bestselling 'The Reader' may find themselves confounded and disappointed by the difficult journey that Schlink takes them on in his latest novel.

It is a trip worth taking but one that yields frustrations as well as rewards.

The story starts off with lyrical memories of Debauer's childhood visits with his paternal grandparents in Switzerland. Born at the end of World War II to a German mother and a mysterious Swiss father, now supposedly dead, the young Debauer is at first less curious about his grandparents' son and more fascinated by their work.

They edit manuscripts for a series of books known as 'Novels for Your Reading Pleasure and Entertainment.'

One of the stories haunts Debauer throughout adolescence and adulthood. It's the story of Karl, a German soldier who escapes a Russian POW camp and embarks on a long, perilous journey back to his wife and child.

Debauer reads a tantalizing, partial copy of the galley and becomes obsessed - first by the mystery of the story's ending and, eventually, by the identity of the author.

The adult Debauer goes into publishing and begins a relationship with a woman that will parallel the fictional story of Karl.

At this point in the novel, Schlink seems to lose his focus. Debauer's search for answers about the story that haunts him suddenly leads him to questions about his father, who up until now has been a background figure.

Who was he? Is he really dead? And if he's alive, why did he desert the son he knew he fathered?

It is as if Schlink is determined to meld two separate novels into one. He struggles to bind all of his plot threads into one smooth hem, but the finished edge is ragged.

By the end of the book his compelling references to 'The Odyssey' are replaced and overshadowed by a scene right out of 'Deliverance.'

There is no denying that Schlink is a formidable wordsmith with the ability to evoke time and place, characters and emotions. But with this book he overturns a bundle of questions, answering some of them yet forgetting to mop up the others.

Like the child Debauer befriends and tries to find answers for, we are left feeling that somehow Schlink let us down and made us work too hard for too little.

Reading this week

Tony Wolk's new book, 'Good Friday,' combines historical fiction with science fiction. After Joan Matcham is impregnated by Abraham Lincoln in 1955, she struggles to return to 1865 and prevent his assassination.

This is the second book in the Abraham Lincoln trilogy that Wolk, a professor of English at Portland State University, is working on.

He will read at 7 tonight at Broadway Books (1714 N.E. Broadway, 503-284-1726).

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'Homecoming'

by Bernhard Schlink

Pantheon