Book Review: Olga by Bernhard Schlink


Translated by Charlotte Collins

About the Book:

The life of one woman – Olga – from late 19th century Prussia to modern Germany.

A novel of love, passion, and history, from beloved modern master Bernhard Schlink.

Olga is an orphan raised by her grandmother in a Prussian village around the turn of the 20th century. Smart and precocious, she fights against the prejudices of the time to find her place in a world that sees her as second-best.

When she falls in love with Herbert, a local aristocrat obsessed with the era’s dreams of power, glory and greatness, her life is irremediably changed.

Theirs is a love against all odds, entwined with the twisting paths of German history, leading us from the late 19th to the early 21st century, from Germany to Africa and the Arctic, from the Baltic Sea to the German south-west.

This is the story of that love, of Olga’s devotion to a restless man – told in thought, letters and in a fateful moment of great rebellion.

My Thoughts:

This was a gorgeous novel. I don’t think I’ve described many books like that but it’s exactly how I feel about this story. Gorgeous writing assembled into an interesting structure, decadent in detail but never laborious to read. This is a story about love and loss, about truth and integrity, about the way in which the history of a nation can be a heartbreaking burden.

It is told in three parts. The first part is narrated like a story, a little bit like a fairy-tale, truth be told, and we’re not sure until the end of this part who is telling the story and what their relationship to Olga is. With a turn of phrase in the last paragraph of this part, this is revealed, and then we move into part two, with the narrator of the first part narrating the second part, but with a different tense and from his own perspective of Olga. The connection between this narrator and Olga was the weakest part of this novel, I did expect more, something deeper, more specific. The third part is told in Olga’s own words, through a series of letters. These different structures worked well to tell the story of not just Olga, but of Germany across this period of time, from the beginning of the 20th century through to a more modern Germany. As always, I find it particularly fascinating to read books about other nations and their histories but from the perspective of those who have lived it; that’s the real beauty of reading a translation as opposed to a novel merely set in a different country, even if they are well researched.

Bernhard Schlink is an excellent novelist. His prose is mesmerising, the way he weaves his scenery in with his characterisation, the lyrical way his words are arranged on the page, they just flow so easily, making this an immersive and visual read. Through Herbert and Olga, and later, Eik and Olga, he probes Germany’s history without justification or vilification, demonstrating the unique intergenerational burden that exists for many people in modern Germany. Olga was a fantastic character, I admired her greatly, not just for her philosophy about Germany and her personal drive to achieve a good life, but also for the way in which she loved. To love someone greatly yet turn away from them because you are opposed to their beliefs and choices takes monumental courage and a sort of selfless devotion stretching beyond the place where justification fills the gaps of all that is wrong yet ignored for love. Sometimes, as is the case with Olga, love certainly doesn’t conquer all, and nor is it blind.

The origin of the letters was fascinating and I am curious to dig a little to find out if this is actually true. Are there now unclaimed letters and postcards from the wars lying in antique stores, memories for sale? One can’t help the voyeuristic curiosity this generates. But even this is explored, the desire to read the secrets of strangers from the past; Schlink really leaves no stone unturned. I’d love to read more of his work and I recognised one of the covers of another of his novels as one that had caught my eye previously. This is a novel in which the essential aspects of a novel are so perfectly demonstrated; a novel for those who love the novel form. There were many sections I could have quoted throughout this review but I’ll leave you just with this, such a particularly poignant thought expressed by Olga, one of the most divine protagonists I’ve encountered in a long time.

‘They should lie together, she said, and remind us that we are equal in death as in life. Death lost its horror if it were no longer the cruel leveller at the end of a life of inequality, privilege and disadvantage, but simply the continuation of a life in which we were all equal.’


Thanks is extended to Hachette Australia for providing me with a copy of Olga for review.

About the Author:

BERNHARD SCHLINK was born in Germany in 1944.
A professor emeritus of law at Humboldt University, Berlin, and Cardozo Law School, New York, he is the author of the internationally bestselling novels THE READER, which became an Oscar-winning film starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, and THE WOMAN ON THE STAIRS.
His latest novel, OLGA, was a #1 international bestseller.
He lives in Berlin and New York.

Published by W&N
Released 10th November 2020

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Olga by Bernhard Schlink

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