At the end of the Second World War, a two-year old German boy is killed in the bombing of Berlin. His young mother, as she flees the city, is so overcome with grief that when her father presents her with a foundling of the same age, she accepts the boy as her own. Giving him the same name, using the same identity papers as her dead son, she promises her father she’ll never tell anyone, not even her husband who is away fighting, that the boy is not hers. The boy, Gregor Liedmann, grows up in Germany, unaware, but conscious of certain family secrets: the Gestapo-related disappearance of his grandfather, Emil, and the torture of his Uncle Max. As Gregor navigates the troubled waters of adolescence, he believes he remembers the night he was adopted and recalls clues uttered accidentally by relatives. In short, he becomes convinced that he is a Jewish orphan.
In 2008, in his sixties, Gregor has disowned his German family and is still convinced of his Jewish identity, despite the pleadings and denials of his parents. In the present, he comes to a fruit orchard for a reunion with friends and his own family – albeit, a broken family (his ex and his son) – and takes advantage of the pastoral setting to sift through the details of his past and try to reconcile his present.
The framework of Hamilton’s plot as an investigation of history, family and identity is perfect. On reading the first pages, I was excited to see how he-no doubt a talented writer who has impressed me before-would tell such a compelling story. Unfortunately, there is little to admire in the actual execution of “Disguise.” Hamilton, deft at description in his memoirs, falls into exposition for most of the novel, telling his readers what’s happened and how characters feel about one another, instead of showing us. Many of the most detailed scenes are the least relevant. These scenes, set in the present tense, seem nothing more than a vehicle through which the protagonist can float into reverie and exposition without interference. More than lazy and lackluster, this exposition is often overdramatic and inaccurate. For example, a chapter begins, “He knows only that he was left alone a lot as a child.” Evidently, that is not all our protagonist knows and remembers, as the rest of the chapter, devoted to his childhood, will attest.
“Disguise” reads like a draft, one where Hamilton wrote what he wanted to happen in the book, but didn’t quite get around to the actual writing of it. And for such a slippery topic as identity, Hamilton’s format is disappointingly traditional and meek. Scenes from the past are presented factually, rendering the uncertainty of the present a mere plot device to push the narrative along toward the carrot of truth. A more experimental approach would have blended fact and fiction to more interesting and relevant effect. We as readers are never unsure of Gregor’s identity; we are never asked to consider whether it really matters. The book, written too matter-of-factly for its delicate subject, merely asks us to witness another’s confusion while we knowingly, cruelly, turn the pages.