Fib. Speak an untruth. Submit a falsehood. Tell a whopper. Or, in the case of German writer Bernhard Schlink, bestselling author of The Reader, tell seven mesmerizing, finely wrought and acutely emotional tales about the lies we tell ourselves and others.
The stories in Summer Lies are largely centered on men in romantic and platonic relationships — with the exception of The Journey to the South, about a suddenly loveless elderly woman confronting a life-shaping personal lie — and they aren’t particularly happy or hopeful. The strained romances appear doomed, the conversations often awkward, and what at first seem benign surfaces tremble with intense pressure, often fury and psychosis. But the stories feel intensely real and recognizable and evoke in fresh ways the reality we tend to construct through the illusions we believe.
Perhaps the most intriguing yet repellant protagonists are those most adept at dishonesty, such as the man in The Night in Baden-Baden who regularly lies to his girlfriend “when small lies promised to bypass large conflicts,” but not when it makes him look worse. In The House in the Forest a husband inappropriately detains his wife in the fantasy of uninterrupted solitude and convinces himself his creepy and methodical web of deceits lies in her best interests, not his own.
Other stories are haunting because of the insight Schlink provides into their internal conversations. In The Last Summer, a man who always told himself he was happy because he had surrounded himself with all the components of happiness, is forced by illness to realize he isn’t in control after all. In After the Season, a man on a beachside holiday falls in love with a woman of means and manages to convince himself he’ll divulge the details of his gritty urban existence. “He hadn’t intended to keep secrets from her. It had just happened that way,” he reassures himself, promising to reveal all, but “not yet.”
The most gripping story is the cascading Stranger in the Night, told through the simple arrangement of two men seated next to each other on a flight to Germany. “You know, up to now it’s been the media telling my story. But that wasn’t my story, it was theirs,’ the protagonist’s seatmate confides. “I have to learn how to tell it. What better way could there be than to tell it to someone who hasn’t heard any part of it, a stranger in the night.” As he unleashes a colorful tale of his girlfriend’s kidnapping in Kuwait, deciding what to leave out and what to embellish, the plane undergoes its own literal turbulence, and reader and passenger are captivated by the man’s charm and drawn into his yarn as it twists and turns.
Schlink’s expert, seductive narratives are compelling, and what stands out is the power of all stories to shape our lives, for better or worse. Yet there isn’t just one truth, Schlink seems to say, but as many kinds as there are people: “The truth I mean and the one I need isn’t sober,” says Anne. “It’s passionate, beautiful sometimes, and sometimes hideous, it can make you happy and it can torture you, and it always sets you free.” This might be what all of Schlink’s characters require, whether they admit it or not.
Christine Thomas is a writer in Hawaii.