Bernhard Schlink requires no introduction. The bestselling author of The Reader has returned to the trademark Schlinkian theme of collective guilt with his new novel Olga. This skilfully crafted work, originally published by Diogenes in 2018, was elegantly translated by Charlotte Collins and published in November last year. One does, however, wish that more space was taken to address the swathe of hot-topic German history, from colonial war through the Nazis to the Bundesrepublik, that finds its way into this work. Olga is best when it reflects on the very nature of history – and on the impact of the stories people tell. As one character writes in a letter: “History is not the past as it really was. It’s the shape we give it.”
A very different novel – from a very different Berliner – is Madeleine Watts’s The Inland Sea (Catapult). This young Australian’s debut features a self-destructive writer, about to leave her native Sydney, who begins work as an emergency phone operator. Her breakdown under the combined stress of extreme weather, the switchboard’s distant disasters and horrible men is interwoven with reflections on colonial history – the narrator’s ancestor, one learns, led a failed expedition to discover Australia’s illusory inland sea. It feels reductive to call this novel ‘climate fiction’ because it so powerfully embeds climate catastrophe within a network of other crises: gender relations, colonial- ism, human cruelty. Inland Sea is beautiful, bleak, and relentless; it is recommended with a trigger warning.
One man who never loses himself in the landscape is British nature writer Robert Macfarlane. His celebrated essay collection The Old Ways followed ancient pathways around Britain (and beyond), exploring the relationship between landscape, language and human history. “Paths are the habits of a landscape,” he wrote. “It’s hard to create a footpath on your own.”
In Ghostways (W.W. Norton), Macfarlane continues this interest with a little help from his friends – co-writer Dan Richards, illustrator Stanley Donwood, and the memory of sadly deceased Roger Deakin. What results is a mixture of non-fiction prose and imaginative poetry, breathing new life into two unusual English landscapes. While not as commanding as Macfarlane’s previous books, Ghostways will nourish anyone suffering from Wanderlust.
Walking is also at the centre of Twelve Nights (Penguin, originally Suhrkamp 2018) by the celebrated Swiss author Urs Faes. This slim novella, Faes’s first to be available in English (translation by Jamie Lee Searle), tells the story of an ill man returning home to face his past during the twelve nights of Epiphany. Follow its protagonist Manfred through the misty woods and snowy hills of the Black Forest, discovering his small-town community’s ghostly superstitions and the tragic family history that caused him to leave. As the story nears its ending, after days of wintry bleakness, the new year finally offers grounds for hope.