People with identity questions often start looking for answers in their parents. While genetics doesn't offer all the answers—at least not yet—a sense of ancestry can give searchers a foundation for more existential musings, like their purpose in the cosmos, or the number of licks vis-à-vis the center of a Tootsie Pop. But some people don't know who their parents are, which makes for all sorts of dramatic possibilities—particularly when the uncertainty is based on someone else's lie. Hugo Hamilton's new novel Disguise is far too low-key to be termed a tragedy, but it does explore the consequences of the roles adults make their children fit, and how those rules can define a life in unexpected ways.
At the end of World War II, a bombing over an unidentified German city kills a 3-year-old named Gregor Liedmann. In despair, his mother flees to the countryside, where she meets her father; without any explanation, he finds her a replacement son, then apparently abandons the two of them to the mercy of the Gestapo, and ultimately, the liberating Allies. More than 60 years later, the second Gregor is a retired musician teaching out of Berlin. During a day in the country spent with his estranged wife and the son who still resents him for the past, the adult Gregor tries to reconcile the contradictions of his youth, and find peace with the forged persona that made him who he is.
Disguise is of that peculiar literary genre which features a great many exciting touchstones—war, Nazis, torture, betrayal, jazz music—but no actual direct excitement. Which isn't a bad thing, exactly; Hamilton achieves a soothing, elegiac tone that fits the introspective struggles of his central character, treating the horrors of history with a respect that doesn't bog the narrative down in misery. The problem comes when the novel reaches its close, and it becomes clear that the various incidents are never going to build to any cohesive finish. Disguise is occasionally compelling, and often beautifully written, but it never commits to anything long enough to develop a point; like its wandering hero, the book seems more comfortable the further it is from home.