What would you do?
This week’s review is on the aptly named book, The Reader, which follows the life of Michael, a young German boy who falls in love with an older woman with a past.
As we all probably know, The Reader, written by Bernhard Schlink, was translated for the silver screen in 2008, starring Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet, and which ended up getting Winslet an oscar for Best Actress. So, basically the film was incredible. Or so I’ve heard.
But you know what? As much as the film may be amazing, the book is better. The story, which has three parts and begins in East Germany, 1958, follows the life of 15 year old Michael, who meets the mysterious, and far older (she’s 36 when they first meet), Hanna. And despite the age difference, and her inability to divulge facts about her life, they begin a romance and fall in love with each other. Through sex, baths, and him reading to her aloud, they form a bond that Michael, the narrator, can’t ever shake.
Part Two: After Hanna unexpectedly leaves town one day, Michael has to move on with his life; which eventuates in him going to law school and witnessing a trial; a group of middle-aged women, who were SS guards at a sister concentration camp of Auschwitz, are being convicted for allowing 300 women prisoners to die in a church fire. Amongst them? Hanna.
I don’t want to give anything more away than this, as there is a twist that you might not see coming (unless you’ve seen the film…than, well…). For me, this book has two resounding features that causes it to stand out from its counterparts.
Firstly, Schlink’s take on the Holocaust. We all know there are a tonne of books out there that deal with the Holocaust. Some of them deal with the prisoners, others deal with the aftermath, one Australian book even looks at Death’s perspective on the events (Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, well worth a read). It’s easy to get trapped into the mind frame that if you’ve read one Holocaust book, then you’ve read them all.
This book is different. Instead of dealing with the horror of the present, Schlink addresses the overwhelming guilt that post-Germany felt after the war had ceased. And more importantly, the frustration and revulsion, and downright anger, that the next generation felt towards their parents. Why should they allow war criminals to live amongst society? Where do you draw the line at what took place? Is it acceptable to allow someone to be considered innocent, if they were only following orders?
While many people may shy away from books like The Reader because it deals with events that were so damning that we still recoil in horror 70 years later, I believe it is important we read them. Personally, as an Australian, I don’t know what it’s like to feel angry at a prior generation for what they’ve done. Sure, I’ve been frustrated at my parents, or even occasionally let-down by them, but how do you feel when your family, and your family’s friends, and people out on the street, allowed six million Jews to be exterminated?
There is one profound moment in the book when the judge is asking Hanna how she allowed her prisoners to die in the fire and she asks him “what would you do?” Personally, this was the pinnacle of the book for me. What would you do?
These are all issues that Schlink addresses, with a clarity and simplicity that defies the plot of the book. It is so easy to imagine yourself there with Michael in the courtroom, as he struggles with the emotions as he watches the trial unfold.
Secondly, I thought that the relationship between Hanna and Michael was amazing because it looks at love from a different perspective. We live in a day and age where we have to like relationships that are impossible, or seem naughty or aren’t quite ‘right’. Books like Twilight, which showcase a relationship between a live human and a dead vampire; surely there is nothing more impossible than that? Or 50 Shades of Grey, which follows the relationship of a sadistic billionaire who has the inability to love, and an innocent woman who wants so badly to be loved (ironically, 50 Shades of Grey started off as Twilight fanfic, but let’s not get into that).
But what happens if a ‘risque’ or ‘naughty’ relationship happens between a young boy and a middle-aged woman? As much as we want their relationship to work in the novel, it is certainly something that would be condemned if it happened within our real-life societies. It is a relationship that is wrong, and debasing, and downright illegal, but it is also love. We don’t get to choose who we fall in love with. Yes, it may be the smart, handsome blah blah blah guy and you live happily ever after, but it could also be the person that you have no right to fall in love with, for whatever reason (immortal blood-sucking night-dwelling creature for example). So when Michael and Hanna fall in love are we meant to be happy for them? Angry that she could be manipulating him?
I also enjoy the way that Schlink emphasises the continual guilt that Michael feels over the fact that he has betrayed Hanna when he falls out of love with her. It is an issue that I don’t believe is addressed frequently enough in mainstream books. Usually we focus on the romances that last, but what happens when you simply stop loving them? Does it make you a bad person? Does it change what happened between you in the past?
Anyway, bit of a heavy post tonight, but I believe it’s also fitting for the plot of the book. If you haven’t read The Reader I really think you should, partially for the sheer delight of Schlink’s writing, and also because I think it’s important we understand all we can about what happened in Germany all those years ago.
Have you read The Reader? Or seen the film? Let me know!