Book review – “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink

This was a recent choice for my book club. It was not a title I was familiar with although I had a vague recollection about a film adaptation coming out a few years ago. It was adapted for the screen in 2008, starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. I had high hopes for the book and was excited at the prospect of reading it, especially since the comments on the cover of my edition were extremely enthusiastic. I’m afraid we were all slightly disappointed. The following review contains some spoilers.

2019-06-26 20.31.04The story begins when 15 year-old Michael, off school for many months after contracting hepatitis, seeks out Hanna Schmitz, a woman who had been passing when he found himself being sick in the street and who had helped him. Once he is well again, Michael’s mother sends him off to find the mystery good Samaritan in order that he can thank her. Hanna is twenty years Michael’s senior and employed as a bus conductor, but despite the social and age gap between them, they begin a passionate affair, both parties equally consenting. One of the more intimate aspects of their relationship is that Michael reads aloud to Hanna, after sex and in the bath mainly, although never the other way around. Michael never questions Hanna’s desire to have him read to her, he just accepts it. This makes up the first part of the book and perhaps it is a testament to events that have occurred since the time of its writing that all of us (mothers of teenagers!) found the prose rather discomfiting, and not a little implausible. Hanna disappears mysteriously out of Michael’s life, leaving him heartbroken and perhaps also rather damaged.

In part two, Michael is older, now at law school, when, as part of his studies, he is sent off to observe the trials of a number of former female guards of a concentration camp who are being charged with allowing the deaths of dozens of Jews, locked in a church when it was hit by a bomb and destroyed by fire. Michael is horrified to discover that Hanna is one of those on trial. There is a detailed report of the events that Hanna is accused of writing, thereby implicating her as the main guard responsible for the atrocity, a charge she does not deny. Michael observes the trial in horror unable to come to terms with the back-story of the woman he once loved. Only at the end of the trial, does he realise Hanna’s secret, that she is illiterate (and therefore could not have written the report), and he finds himself with the dilemma of whether to intervene and tell the judge, with all the implications that would have. He elects not to, realising that Hanna confessed in order to conceal her illiteracy and for him to expose her would breach her autonomy, even if it means there has been a miscarriage of justice.

The final part of the book is about Michael’s life after the trial, his failed marriage, and his eventual decision to make contact with Hanna in prison. He sends her cassette tapes of himself reading aloud although he never includes any personal messages or letters. Eventually, he sees Hanna again, as she is about to be released at the end of her sentence, and helps to set her up with work and accommodation for when she is released. Hanna never gets out though as she hangs herself in her cell on the night before her release.

Set in the late 1950s and 1960s, the novel is said to be about Germany coming to terms with its wartime past; there is Hanna’s trial, the account of the events in which she was involved, the opportunity for the survivors of the camps to give an account of their experiences, and for the German judiciary to rightfully punish those responsible and be seen to dispense justice. On the cover of the book, the late Sir Peter Hall is quoted as saying “[This] is the German novel I have been waiting for: it objectifies the Holocaust and legitimately makes all mankind responsible.” I’m afraid, I just don’t think it reaches these heights. Yes, it is quite well-written and is arguably an interesting story, though one which my fellow book club members and I found deeply uncomfortable since we saw the relationship between Michael and Hanna as borderline child sexual abuse. The fact that this is in no way acknowledged is a problem. The story for me, though, just didn’t go anywhere; I reached the end and had nothing to say, no great realisation or revelation, or even closure. I just don’t think the book really knew what it was about.

So, a disappointing read, I’m afraid and not one I can recommend. I’d quite like to see the film, to see what Director Stephen Daldry (of Billy Elliot fame) made of it.

I’d love to know what you thought, if you have read it – did something different come out for you? And how are we to view works of literature written at times when societal norms, or our understanding of them, are different?

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog. Let’s also connect on social media.

Thoughts on writing a book #1

Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the UK today. TV programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? are often at the top of the ratings tables and the largest family tree website Ancestry.com has almost 3 million paying subscribers worldwide and has access to 20 billion records in 80 countries. It is big business, for sure. Finding out where we have come from is a deep human need. Perhaps it helps us towards a better understanding of ourselves and what makes us tick. And as our world becomes ever more dynamic, busy and harder to navigate, that self-understanding becomes an important part of maintaining our identity, staying rooted

Scan0003
My Grandmother Rose, with my baby brother and I, 1971

Most of us will have done a basic family tree at some point in our lives. I did one at primary school and can remember interviewing my grandparents to find out about their parents and siblings. I actually dug out this juvenile work a few months ago when I started the research for a book I am currently writing. I am writing a novel about my grandmother. The working title is Finding Rose. She was born in 1910 into a very poor family in East London, the seventh of ten children. She had a very limited education, having developed a disability called benign essential tremor. She had a ‘shake’ all her life which meant she had very poor motor skills, never able to write for example. My father, her second child, was born in Hertford on 22nd December 1940 (maternity patients were moved out of London because of the Blitz), while her husband, Charles, lay dying from tuberculosis in a hospital in Kent. He died on 26th December, without ever meeting his son, my father. Rose never remarried, but had another child in 1943 and brought up her three children on her own, though with the help of her sisters, through the Second World War. Rose outlived all her siblings, dying in 1995 at the age of 85. Incredible when you think where she started. I hope I have inherited these robust East End genes!

1911 census
Could this be my great-Grandfather’s handwriting?

Through my internet research I have uncovered some incredible information about Rose and her family. I got a shiver when I saw a facsimile of the actual 1911 census form showing the composition of 1 year old Rose’s family home. But we need more than facts, dates of birth, addresses, marriage dates, etc. It is the textural information that I feel the lack of now – what was Charles, my grandfather, like? Where did he and Rose meet? How did Rose cope when she lost her husband? There is no-one left alive to answer these questions. My own father passed away in 2010 and my aunt and uncle are now elderly. My book will attempt to write Rose’s life. It will be necessary for me to make up most of it, so it will be my best guess at the life she had. I’m sure much of it will be the life I hope she had.

Your father's roomI have been reading a lot of fictionalised biography to help me and one book I read recently I found profoundly moving. Your Father’s Room by French writer Michel Deon is part fiction, part memoir, and looks back to 1920s Paris and Monte Carlo. Edouard, or Teddy, is the only child of a civil servant and his socialite wife. The family moves to Monte Carlo with the father’s job and there is a fascinating insight to life in the south of France at that time, the characters connected to the family and the nature of the relationship between Teddy’s parents. If this is an account in part of the author’s childhood then much of Teddy’s observations will have been imagined by Deon. Perhaps like me he is taking fragments of memory, partial facts and knitting them together to tell a story. It is very engaging even though it is not clear what is truth and what is fiction. How much of any of our family history is a story anyway, ‘facts’ that have been embellished (or concealed) over the years?

Your Father’s Room is a beautiful little book (under 100 pages) with a poignant ending, and Deon writes magnificently. The translation is extremely good. I’ve learned a lot from this reading about how I might approach my own book (and if my writing turns out to be even half as good as this, I’ll be delighted!) and filling in the gaps with my own imagination. I’m about 20,000 words in now, and am hoping to complete a first draft by Christmas.

Wish me luck!

I’d love to hear your experiences of family research. What have you uncovered?

If you have enjoyed this post, do subscribe to the blog by clicking on the ‘Follow’ button.