I really never intended to read this book. All I really knew about it was that the subject matter was a bit…uncomfortable. The story is told by a grown man named Michael who grew up in post-war Germany and had an ongoing affair with a 35 year old woman when he was only 15. However, it’s more than a story of sex. This is a story about love, betrayal, and coming to terms with the past.
With only 215 pages, this book packs a LOT of content in very few words. I was surprised how strongly I was affected by it. I’ve read a lot of fiction set during World War II, but this was unlike any of them. It actually starts in the late 1950s and spans both of their lifetimes. Most of the book is spent in adult Michael’s head as he deals with the shocking discovery that his former lover was a Auschwitz guard. I would love to say I hated the female character (Hanna) but I actually felt for her. I doubt she intended to work in a concentration camp, and she definitely didn’t choose the life she had. She was just trying to survive in a world where every option was bad. I actually felt more disappointment in Michael that he continuously betrayed her. Hearing his constant defensive narrative was annoying, like he was wanting us, the readers, to take his side.
I chose this as a book club selection for that reason. There was so much to talk about! I think these are the best kind of books for discussions. It’s interesting to see how different we all handle moral dilemmas. I think, for this book anyway, you really have to take into account the time period and the difficulty this generation had dealing with the war. The effects were still very fresh and most of them had family who were involved in the good parts and the bad. They didn’t know if they should be thankful they weren’t born a little bit earlier, or ashamed that they weren’t there.
From the very beginning, I could see that Michael was a weak person. He was ashamed of the class difference between he and Hanna and kept her a secret from friends. He doesn’t speak up when he knows Hanna couldn’t have committed the crimes for which she was on trial. When he learned that Hanna would be imprisoned for life, he never went to visit or wrote one letter. Talk about a punch to the gut.
I do feel this is an important book. I don’t know any other books that captures the struggles this generation must have had. Some say this may be based on the author’s true life story, but he denies it. Even if it’s a work of fiction, I am humbled by his ability to write such a simple, meaningful story in such a way that no one can believe it isn’t true!
If you’re more of a movie person, this book was adapted for the screen in 2008, and was nominated for 5 Academy Awards. I personally haven’t watched it but I’m sure I will. I always enjoy critiquing movies that were books first, if only to point out all the ways the book was better.
Goodreads rating: 5 out of 5 stars