In this ode to Schubert and German Romanticism, a debut French novelist explores the relationship between Hermin, a composer and instructor, and his former pupil, Lenny, a piano prodigy who has returned to Hermin's life after a long time away.
Sarah Léon’s debut novel, Wanderer, is an elegant and finely focused winter’s tale. It starts out quietly dramatic and atmospheric but gradually builds and burns, presenting in the end a relationship which manages to be, simultaneously, tightly bound and prone to unraveling at any moment. Apart from several minor cameos, the book is a neatly staged two-hander. Such a structure allows Léon to home in on her lead men and highlight their anxieties and evasions, their unasked questions and unspoken desires. This is also an intensely musical novel ... It is nimbly done—and nicely translated by John Cullen. And yet when Léon expands to pay homage to German Romanticism in general, she is less successful ... After a while, it feels as if Léon is laying things on a bit thick. Fortunately, she makes up for this in other areas. The flashbacks on practically every page tell another story in beautiful counterpoint. The fiery exchanges and desperate treks through the snowy landscapes prove gripping. And the portrait of two men unable to voice their feelings and in thrall to the 'inexpressible force' of music is tender and wise.
Wanderer is a beautifully written (albeit translated from the French) short novel ... Léon provides the reader with a foray into a multilayered relationship ... Wanderer is not without its challenges. At times the reader can also be exasperated with both Hermin and Lenny, and the novel seems claustrophobic, as most of the action occurs in Hermin’s isolated house near the mountains during a snowy winter. Léon deliberately populates the story with few secondary characters, which leaves the narrative’s focus on Hermin and Lenny, but the effect is a lack of breathing room and the absence of perspective other characters perhaps might lend to the relationship ... Aside from writing lyrical, evocative prose, Léon’s other precocious talent is her understanding of people ... That Léon wrote this discerning novel when she was 21 speaks to future works that should explore a more expansive landscape.
It’s not quite stream-of-consciousness, but it is evocative in conveying the viewpoint of the characters’ running thoughts. This is a deeply internal novel, with more thought and observed than said or done ... Some of these musings become repetitive. Hermin narrates multiple variations of wondering what happened to change Lenny so much; these seem to pad the short book. References to German Romanticism and classical music are underlined and feel inorganic. Various German phrases and terms are translated in footnotes and lose their mystery. The prose pays close attention to the particulars of the wintry setting and the subtleties of the action and dialogue between its characters. Wanderer is a subdued but emotional story.