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Review: The Woman on the Stairs by Bernhard Schlink

When the nameless narrator in German author Bernhard Schlink’s latest novel The Woman on the Stairs enters the Art Gallery of New South Wales, he’s rendered speechless by a painting of a nude blond woman descending a staircase. Not because of the woman’s beauty or the craftsmanship of the work, but because this painting hasn’t been seen publicly for 40 years. He should know — he helped steal it. When the narrator was just beginning his career as a contracts lawyer, he was approached by the now famous artist with a difficult proposition: the artist wanted the painting back from the buyer, and hoped to exchange his lover — the buyer’s former wife and the painting’s model — for its return. Repulsed by the notion but driven to succeed at his firm, the lawyer draws up the contract, then colludes with the model to make a plan of their own.

Then life went on, and 40 years later the narrator is forced to finally confront the two men, the beautiful woman, and the fact that he may not have been right in his actions after all.

Told in three parts, The Woman on the Stairs is a quiet novel that sneaks up on you with its pointed reflection on ambition, power, and the assumptions men make and place on women. When the players find themselves together again, the artist, buyer and lawyer learn the model, now a fugitive living in a derelict rural Australian property, was never the muse, trophy, or damsel in distress they considered. She was something different, something more, and the realization of lives and opportunities lost overcomes, and ultimately inspires, the narrator to change.

A beautiful novel exploring how nostalgia can both keep us at a standstill and enliven us to dramatic action, Schlick’s writing is as graceful and unsettling as a fine work of art.