Olga by Bernhard Schlink

You know when a book is a three-star read and then suddenly in the last few pages it turns into a four-star? That, with Olga by Bernhard Schlink.

The story is set in Prussia at the turn of the 20th century. It is structured around a woman, Olga, who has been raised by her aloof grandmother. Olga fights against the norms and expectations of the time, obtains an education, and eventually trains to become a teacher. An important part of Olga’s story is her enduring love for Herbert, a local aristocrat. Herbert’s family have plans for him to marry someone of equal social standing, and to take over the family estate. However, Herbert’s love for Olga, and his own obsession with adventure and glory result in a different path for him – exploring foreign countries and periodically returning to Olga.

I very much enjoy Schlink’s plain, straightforward writing. There’s still plenty of feeling, but it’s unadorned, and the plot twists are delivered with such little fanfare that I found myself re-reading bits to double-check what had happened.

What I found particularly interesting, was how Schlink has created a character who had experienced very little kindness and affection in her life; who was so self-contained; and not at all bitter or resentful. And yet, the warmth and interest she showed toward others is genuine, and never read as needy, or grasping. Olga holds love and loss lightly, noting that life was ‘…a series of losses’  that we learn to make peace with over time.

…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… A person who had understood the truth of equality had no fear of death.

There’s more in this book – themes of how we remember –

History is not the past as it really was. It’s the shape we give it.

and Schlink’s treatment of Germany’s role in the wars and attempts to colonise in south-west Africa.

She believed Germany’s misery had begun with Bismarck. Ever since he had seated Germany on a horse too big for it to ride, the Germans had wanted everything too grand.

My only quibble was with the three-part structure – the first part is told from the perspective of Olga; the second from the perspective of a young man who knew Olga as he was growing up, and maintained their friendship as she became elderly; and the final part, a series of letters from Olga to Herbert. There were changes in rhythm between each part, and while the different perspectives allowed key plot points to be appropriately revealed, it was momentarily disorientating, pulling me out of the story.


Do you remember? How I dipped the sugar into cold water, dissolved it in the big pot over a low flame and let it seethe until it went clear? How I added the raspberries and boiled and stirred them until I had thick raspberry juice? You watched, wide-eyed. The jam was terribly sweet last year, so I used less sugar this time. Seven pounds of raspberries and eight pounds of sugar – I filled twenty-two jars! I would have loved to let you sulphur the jars and lids again. Remember?

7 responses

  1. I’ve still only read The Reader by Schlink, though my mother recommended his short story collection. It’s funny how sometimes the very end of a book can skew a rating, up or down!

    • I’d also only read The Reader (which I LOVED and is one of the few books I intend to reread at some stage). I have had his short stories in my reading pile for years but someone Olga leapfrogged them, and the short chapters and simple writing was perfect material while I was lying in bed with COVID (still am TBH).

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