Olga Rinke is a woman splintered in time. As the quiet heroine of Bernhard Schlink’s elegiac new novel, she is caught between past and present, a progressive thinker doomed to the limited social posts assigned to poorer women in turn-of-the-century Prussia.

For Schlink, she also is totemic of the turbulent losses of the century she lives through. Her most passionate love letters are never seen by their intended reader, an explorer who does not return home. “Sociable people live in the present, lonely people in the past,” she writes to him, knowing he will not read her words.

But if hers is a tragic story, it is also because the new Germany is never quite a homeland to her: she stands at a distance from its burgeoning nationalism, and repudiates any accompanying search for greatness — losing, along the way, some of her own chances for happiness.

Though there are fragments of hope in this story, Schlink cloaks it in unmistakable melancholy, a quality redolent of The Reader, his famous 1995 novel which, like Olga, offers a compassionate study of German conscience and of lives that vanish in history.

With fine authorial care, Schlink leads us from the child Olga standing at a window in her hometown near Breslau — “a small, silent girl” cared for by neighbours — to her hospital deathbed in Heidelberg, where she “looked as if she’d had a sleepless night or had overexerted herself”.

After she loses her mother and father in quick succession, the orphan Olga is sent to her grandmother in Pomerania, where she strikes up a pivotal affair with Herbert, a rich son of high society. Like Olga, he is destined to reject the easier prizes in life. Instead of settling for his parents’ wishes for a socially favourable marriage, he strikes out on his own, keeping Olga’s affections in tow. A tour of duty in colonial Africa inculcates him with a sense of superiority that then spurs his desire to explore the Arctic. Ominously for Olga, he is also touched by what others perceive as a “longing for nothingness”.

Much of this relationship, which does not progress to marriage, is relayed through letters between the two, skilfully deployed by Schlink to show the naivety and also the callousness of both parties.

While others around her selfishly plot out their place in society, Olga protects her most precious ambition, to love Herbert, in spite of his unprepossessing presence. Curious and intelligent, she has to create her own education in the margins, at first schooling herself by reading books alone in the forest. Eventually she wins a place at teacher training college, and so begins a career of sharing knowledge.

Through subsequent war, exile, illness and old age, Olga’s chief reward is to gain wisdom, which she continues to pass on even after her teaching life ends with the loss of her hearing. A meagre income is instead provided by her skill as a seamstress, a quiet allusion from Schlink to the fact that she is still trapped — making things to fit others in a world that does not fit her.

A young boy, Eik, who lives in her care, also grows up to be caught in mournful tides of war and love. Yet her counsel to another young charge to accept that “life was a series of losses”, proves not to be advice that she applies unfailingly herself. She is shown to be combatant with the events in her life, not merely shaped by them. In particular, she has great disdain for Otto von Bismarck, who drove Germany’s unification with what Olga sees as unforgivable pomposity and grandeur.

This is not a straightforward elegy — and throughout the book, death is not an absolute end. Instead, Schlink frames the novel as a search for meaning, which dances in Olga between a multitude of timeframes and territories. This is painfully, perhaps most movingly portrayed in Herbert’s Arctic progress, which quickly is halted by natural forces, his ship lost in the ice. Olga reads a newspaper account of the mission, and sees that the “illustrator had done drawings from photographs, a few thin black lines that Olga thought looked like caricatures. As if the Arctic were a bad joke.” Throughout, Charlotte Collins’s translation is careful and beautifully paced, smoothing over the passages where the ambivalence at the heart of the story sometimes threatens to slow it to a full stop.

At the novel’s midpoint, when its energy appears to be waning, Schlink reveals the extent of his narrative control. What seemed to be a slowly gliding tale of German nationhood and womanhood tragically entwined is suddenly deposited into another narrator’s hands — and we find the past rewritten again. Then, in the novel’s closing section, we pick up another reading — that of Olga’s letters sent poste restante to Tromso, awaiting Herbert’s return from the ice. These might have lit up the book into a fiery finish, but instead they are a sad coda, a voice writing to the dead.

Olga, by Bernhard Schlink, translated by Charlotte Collins, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£16.99, 288 pages

Natalie Whittle is FT Weekend’s development editor

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