In theory, this should have drummed up quite a good conversation with many issues to talk about, but I was a little worried as to how the group would take it. I need not have worried at all – they loved it! In fact, I can safely say that it was the best book group discussion we’ve had this year (and we’ve been having some excellent discussions recently).
The story is told in three parts by the main character, Michael Berg, and each part takes place in a different time period in the past. The story begins with a chance meeting between Michael and an older woman called Hanna Schmitz. Their chance meeting then turns into a heated affair which then comes to an abrupt end when Hannah leaves without a trace and Michael is left to pick up his life where he left off. Seven years later, while attending law school, Michael is part of a group of students observing a war crimes trial and is stunned to see that Hanna is one of the defendants, sending him on a roller coaster of complex emotions. As the trial continues, it becomes apparent that Hannah is actually illiterate but is willing to go to any lengths to stop this from becoming public.
During the trial, it transpires that whilst she served as an SS guard at Auschwitz she took in the weak, sickly women and had them read to her before they were sent to the gas chambers. Michael decides she wanted to make their last days bearable; or did she send them to their death so they would not reveal her secret? Hannah admits that she wrote the report in regards to what happened when a terrible incident occurred whilst prisoners were in her care. Hannah decides to accept this burden rather than admit that she is illiterate and couldn’t possibly have written the account. Hanna is then convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Whilst in prison, Michael decides to tape readings of books and sends them to Hannah. Hanna begins to teach herself to read, and then write in a childlike way, by borrowing the books from the prison library and following the tapes along in the text. When the day comes for Hannah to be released Michael visits her and agrees to help her get back into society, but what happens after their meeting is both shocking and very sad.
Firstly, the group found part one incredibly interesting where we see the young boy seduced into a relationship and, to a certain extent, abused both physically and mentally. The young boy seems oblivious to this abuse as he is blinded by his own testosterone, and it is only later in his life that we begin to see the true effects of the affair. The story then moves from a sexual content to that of a murder trial. At first, this seemed a little odd and, personally, I thought that we were a million miles away from the beginning of the story when actually we were beginning to find out the reasons for why Hannah behaved towards Michael in the way that she did. Even after finding out Hannah’s secret of being illiterate and the horrors that she went through as an SS guard, some members believed that she was still a very clever and calculated woman who used poor Michael in the most appalling way. I would like to think that she wasn’t quite as cold hearted and manipulative as the rest of the group perceived her to be, but I was on my own at this point!
After hearing the war story and how Hannah was involved with the deaths of 300 Jewish women, I actually began to feel quite sorry for Hannah and the predicament she was in. This sparked off a discussion about literacy in Germany both during and after the war and how Germany had the highest literacy rate in Europe, yet Hannah’s illiteracy seems to represent the ignorance that allowed ordinary people to commit atrocities. Literacy was so highly thought of during this period of time that a woman was willing to go to jail for eighteen years rather than admit to a court that she was illiterate. A shocking and heart breaking thought.
As we continued to discuss the moral and ethical issues of the affair, the effects of war crimes and the Holocaust, and the issues that arise from illiteracy in postwar Germany, we found that we simply didn’t have enough time to discuss all that could be discussed and I haven’t even mentioned the wonderful style in which it is written. This book was recommended by one of our members and I think we can all agree that it was an excellent choice which has probably left us with more questions than when we started!
Personally, I thought that this book was amazing! The way in which it is written is very sensitively done and the plot and layout was just perfect. A great read from the beginning right to the very end.
First published in English back in 1997, this superb piece of literature has quite deservedly been a World Book Night choice and I can strongly recommend it too. Whether you are looking for a book group choice or a read for yourself you will not be disappointed with the super novel. Certainly one for the bookshelf.