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.
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.
First-novelist Léon creates a sense of comfort even as the tension between the two men builds, much like the snow that continues to fall outside the isolated cabin. Their unresolved past ripples through the book in italicized moments, but never jarringly so. Léon’s tale is an homage to Schubert and German Romanticism as a brooding tone underlines the pair’s resentment and dependence on each other, which seethes just below the surface during their conversations in the forest and silent moments by the fire. Léon perfectly measures out past and present to reach a satisfying and intimate crescendo.