A haunting book and disturbing book. Michael Berg, aged 15, has an all encompassing, secret and obsessive affair with Hanna, an older woman, about whom he knows and learns little, in fact she pushes away any attempts to learn about her life past or present. Suddenly one day she’s vanished. The question lingers, why? Was it something he said or did? And so the major themes of the book, doubt, guilt and shame are introduced.
The years pass. Although he doesn’t meet her again, the effects of their affair linger, colouring his relationships with others and the way he sees himself. Then suddenly there she is, in court on trial for war crimes – this is post-war Germany, and she is implicated in it’s guilty past. His shame and the country’s shame converge as he grapples with what it means to be in the generation who were responsible, or did nothing to stop past atrocities. How can you have feelings for someone involved in such acts? What does that say about you? How can we live with the past?
Bernhard Schlink raises many questions and provides few answers other than the uneasy question raised frequently in the court case – what would you have done? – and the uneasy realisation that we are all guilty and in need of redemption and acceptance.
This is a small novel and yet the questions it asks are large and like Michael’s affair I suspect they will remain with me long after closing the last page.