This is the book on which the Oscar award winning movie starring Kate Winslet has been made. This is also an Oprah book club nominated book, which pretty much gave me an idea of how the book would be. Most of Oprah’s favorite books seem to emotional tear-jerkers full of the rhona-dhona sob story stuff. And this book is no different.
The book starts of describing a 15-year old boy’s love affair with a 30+ woman named Hannah Schmitz. This section (indeed the whole book, but it comes across particularly so in the first section) is written in a very detached, very matter-of-fact manner. So matter-of-fact, that I just could not summon up any interest in either of the two characters. There didn’t seem anything within the lady to love or admire. She treats him like a lackey for most of the time, and has the upper hand in the affair all the time.
One day, she just ups and leaves him, leaving him all heart-broken and unhappy. The next time he sees her, she is accused of war crimes during the Nazi regime, when she was a guard at one of the concentration camps. This is the first time that the war is even alluded to in the novel.
It is from this point onwards that the story really starts to grip. The story then starts to question the collective guilt of the people who lived during the Nazi regime, some of them just doing their duty and others who watched while the atrocities were committed without doing anything to help. It is very difficult to not praise these sections of the book enough…this is also something that is not usually tackled in other novels about Nazi cruelty.
The following dialogue between the judge and Hannah during her trial really got me thinking…
Judge: Did you not know that you were sending prisoners to their deaths?
Hannah: Yes, but the old ones had to make way for the new ones
Judge: So, because you wanted to make room, you said you and you and you have to be sent back to be killed?
Hannah: I … I mean…so what would you have done?
Taken aback, the judge blubbers a very unconvincing answer…
It was a good question – how many of us in that situation would have been bold enough to do anything different?
Don’t get me wrong. I totally condemn the atrocities, but once I came across the above section in the book, my heart started to warm towards Hannah and I was able to understand to a certain extent about the choices that she made.
Another very important point brought about was the numbness of the people who were involved, the prisoners most of whom had accepted their fate, the guards and the executioners who were just doing their duty, and thought they were obeying the laws of that time. Then the laws changed…
In many ways, this book reminded me of another one that I have read (An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro) which also deals with similar themes of taking responsibility for morally ambiguous acts during wartime.
This is a much stronger novel, however written in a very simple, straight-forward and accessible manner that anyone can read and understand.
Note: There is a very good reason why the book is called “The Reader” rather than anything else, but I am not going to reveal it here. You just go ahead and read the book. It is very well worth the time.