Hugo Hamilton's latest novel 'Disguise' begins in 1945, when a young mother loses her two-year-old son in the Berlin Bombings of the Second World War. With her husband away fighting on the front, she is left devastated and alone in her grief. She flees to the south to her father, who is flagrantly avoiding his military duties. There he finds an orphan of the same age as her dead son and offers him to his shell-shocked daughter as a replacement. He makes her promise never to tell anyone, including her husband, and to take the boy as her own.
Now, in 2008, Gregor Liedmann is in his sixties and, on a beautiful summer's day, is on his way to the countryside to spend the day with family and friends. Chapter by chapter we are brought to and fro from Gregor's post-war childhood to the present-day. The heady summer's day, laden down with insects and cider apples, carries an underlying emotion of hurt and abandonment. Gregor is made face up to his sense of belonging, or lack of, as well as his responsibility to his ex-wife Mara and son Daniel, sifting through memory and facts in an effort to establish a true sense of identity.
The tag line for 'Disguise' is that it's a story of lost identity, a theme which author Hugo Hamilton has long since explored in his work. It is also about a lot more than lost identity; it is a story of a lonely, detached and disillusioned boy, who comes up with a fantastical explanation for these feelings of detachment. Is he really an orphaned Jewish survivor? The answer, it seems, is left to the reader's interpretation to decide.
'Disguise' is beautifully descriptive; the pungent summer's day on a fruit farm, which demands Gregor to atone for past falsehoods (and the abandonment of his son), is intoxicating. It is thought-provoking in its exploration of identity and communal belonging. Are these the musings of a detached adolescent who stumbled upon a skeleton in a closet he took to be his own, or is it a story of a Jewish survivor trying to find a lost identity?
Whatever your conclusion may be, this is a story that draws the reader into a world of subterfuge among the horrors of war, while retaining an earthly beauty that's so compelling. Yet, what begins as a poignant and thought-provoking read flails and muddies, failing to come to a comfortable conclusion. When the long-awaited revelation arrives, it feels shallow and hurried, and doesn't do justice to some of the themes which were so eloquently brought up in 'Disguise', resulting in a disappointing end.