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Disguise, by Hugo Hamilton

Compelling tale of a 'replacement' child's painful passage into adulthood

"Everything was in chaos." In the last days of the Second World War, in the aftermath of the bombing of Berlin, Germany is filled with people fleeing – everyone distraught and dispossessed. Panic, rumours and frustration abound. In a crowded railway station not far from Nuremburg, a young woman with a child is waiting for her father to come back and make them safe. He does not return.

On the journey south in his truck, the woman's father has brought her a child he has found by the roadside with his dying grandmother: a three-year-old orphaned refugee from the east, beyond Danzig. This child is a gift, a replacement for her own infant son, Gregor Leidmann, lost in the bombing. She is resistant at first, but takes on the role of mother to the foundling. Her husband returns from the Russian Front and never doubts that the child is his own. The boy grows up.

This is Gregor's story. Only at a fairly late stage in Hugo Hamilton's grave and compelling new novel is the authenticity of these events called into question. Is Gregor the true son of his parents, of his hunting-obsessed father and subdued mother? And what are the implications of the story's truth or falsehood?

Gregor has assumed a Jewish identity. He has had himself circumcised as an adult and asserted his status as a Jewish survivor, smuggled westwards. The few surviving "facts" concerning Gregor's irretrievable origins have come from an elderly friend of the Leidmanns, Uncle Max, a victim of Gestapo brutality. Because of the lies he believes were told to him, Gregor has chosen first of all to abandon his parents – when he runs away from home – and, later, to separate himself from his wife and son to follow the calling of a peripatetic trumpet-player.

But now, in the present, the 60-plus Gregor has joined a group of family and friends. The group has assembled for a late-summer day of apple-picking in an idyllic eastern German orchard, attached to a farm that once stood on the front line. Painful memories infiltrate the peaceful present. This vantage point, though, suggests the possibility of some kind of resolution, a measure of freedom from the pressures of speculation. We are, in the end, whatever we've made of ourselves. The theme of the novel is the interaction between history and identity, choice and predetermination. It's a large undertaking, carried out with grace and aplomb.