Silent Night, Ghostly Night

It’s a well-known fact that ministers or priests love crime novels and detective stories. Don’t ask me why, but as the daughter of a minister, I, Thura, grew up in a house filled with crime novels and the standard Saturday-evening viewing of a Miss Marple film. This also means that I associate Christmas with a good murder. All three of us think there’s something incredibly cosy and relaxing about reading detective novels over the holidays, pondering on who could have committed a fictional horrific crime this time, while enjoying some Christmas punch. And we’re not the only one: there are many, many books with titles like ‘murder at Christmas’. So we decided to do not only a Christmas book recommendation, but a Christmas and Death-themed recommendation. All three of our chosen books are very different, but all have the elements of Christmas, the coming together of people, death and a lesson learned.

Bella’s Christmas Recommendation: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

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This story, about Scrooge who is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future to teach him about the meaning of Christmas, is one of the most famous Christmas stories. It made the phrase ‘humbug’ popular, because that’s what Scrooge keeps saying, thinking about Christmas and all the festivities. However, the fact that it is such a well-known story doesn’t mean you should not read it again this Christmas. It is a thrilling ghost story that stays interesting with every re-read and the message of redemption and discovering the true meaning of Christmas remains relevant.
One reason this book fits the theme is that it starts with the death of Marley, the companion of Scrooge only in the business sense. There was never a real attachment between the two. Scrooge has no attachment to anyone or anything and is an old man without any kindness or friendliness inside him – you could say he is dead inside. He is even annoyed to grant his clerk, Bob Cratchit, a paid day off for Christmas. At the eve of Christmas, the ghosts show him why Christmas is an important day for his clerk and other people, including Scrooge himself. Also, the ghosts show him what will happen if he keeps thinking Christmas is humbug by showing his own lonely death and the death of a much loved small boy.
The reason you should read this book, though, is that it is not only about death. It is much more about being reborn by accepting God’s grace and human kindness. Scrooge learns that Christmas is a time of warmth, friendship and family through the visions of the ghosts. He learns that loving people will enrich his life and make him a better person. That makes this book about redemption and second chances a perfect read during Christmas, when it’s all about being together with the people you love. It is the perfect book for people like me, who have trouble getting themselves into the happy, festive spirit. Reading this book will remind you what Christmas is all about.

Jo’s Christmas Recommendation: Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie

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You cannot write a blog post about Christmas murder without mentioning the Queen of Crime, Dame Agatha Christie. Her novel Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is just short enough to read over the holidays, in between church visits and family gatherings. Just as in the other books on this list, the peaceful and hopeful spirit of Christmas is offset by death. In this case, death arrives in the form of a brutal murder. What should be a season of reconciliation becomes a time of suspicion and uncertainty. The added element of Christmas makes the murder all the more incomprehensible for the story’s characters, and all the more seasonable for us.
The Lee family has come together for Christmas for the first time in more than twenty years, but their celebration is disturbed by a bloodcurdling scream. As they break through the locked door of their elderly patriarch’s room, they arrive upon a scene that seems both unreal and impossible: the old man lies in a pool of his own blood, his throat slit, all the furniture in the room overturned and the windows closed. There seems to be no way in which the murderer could have escaped. Luckily, our favourite Belgian detective is called upon to help the police solve the crime. In the story, the violence and suspicion that come with murder are constantly contrasted with what Christmas should be: a time of ‘peace and goodwill’. One member of the Lee family, a young woman who grew up in Spain, longs to celebrate an English Christmas like the ones she read about in books, but the crackers and decorations stay in the cupboard.
This story has all the classic ingredients of an Agatha Christie murder: a limited pool of subjects who all seem to have a motive for killing the victim, a few strange elements in the murder scene, a large house, complex family dynamics and a plot twist. The joy of Agatha Christie’s novels are her attention to detail and human nature, a talent which she uses superbly in this story. To the reader, of course, this murder means an attractive mystery to put your teeth in. I imagine, if you have that kind of family, this would be an excellent book to read out loud so you can try to solve it together. I’ll reveal that the ending is bittersweet and that the Lee family might have a better Christmas next year. In which case, we’ll move on to another fictional family that is struck by death at Christmas time.

Thura’s Christmas Reccomendation: I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (Flavia de Luce #4) by Alan Bradley

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As mentioned before, I find detective stories to be incredibly cosy. This of course has a lot to do with the fact that they’re fictional and the fact that we get to solve this murder from a calming and safe place, preferably with a Christmas tree nearby! So my Christmas recommendation is indeed murder, investigated by my favourite eleven-year-old know-it-all chemist and sleuth Flavia de Luce. I’ve written a review on the first book in the series before and you can find it here if you would like to know more about young Flavia. But just to give you a short overview: Flavia is eleven years old, a bit of a genius, and she lives on a large estate during the 1950s in England. Her hobbies include all things chemistry, poison in particular, and butting in whenever someone in the village gets done in.
In I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Flavia spends her Christmas at their family manor called Buckshaw with a film crew shooting at their estate. When half the village gathers at their manor for an evening performance by one of the stars of the film, they get snowed in. And of course, how could it not, past midnight Flavia discovers the body of the movie star, who was strangled with a piece of film. Immediately she gets to work, with both her brilliant mind and her chemistry gifts, in trying to find the murderer among the kind villagers all trapped at their house for the night. And one of these trapped villagers is actually a woman who is about to have a real life Christmas baby at any moment. Eventually, Flavia manages to capture the killer at her own peril and with the help of some homemade dodgy fireworks. This is not a brilliant or complicated crime novel, but it will give you that excitement of a detective and the warm fuzzy feeling that Christmas often brings.
Flavia is incredibly precocious for her age, but she is also just a child. Because she is the narrator of this story, this book is the perfect Christmas read for me: it’s a classic who-dun-it, but from the point of view of an eleven year old who still gets incredibly excited about Christmas and refuses to believe that Santa Claus isn’t real. The little village of Bishop’s Lacey offers the perfect background for a cosy and very British Christmas, where people will celebrate Christmas no matter what gets thrown at them (a body in this case). And of course, I particularly loved the added heavily pregnant woman and the awe and peace this suddenly brings to the story. Flavia may believe she knows everything there is to know about the world, but the beauty of a new-born child puts all of her science and logical conclusions into perspective. And isn’t that really what Christmas is all about?

We might enjoy murder over Christmas, but not everyone does, so let us know below what you would like to read or are reading over Christmas! If you love a good ghostly tale like we do, definitely give these books a try.

Either way, we would like to wish all of you a blessed and bookish Christmas!

us

Bookworms United 

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

The title of this novel speaks to the imagination. The French word for chocolate sounds much more like it tastes than it does in English or Dutch. I read Chocolat in school and loved it, along with its film adaptation, although I have a few concerns about it now. I still enjoy it, and why not? It’s about a small French village, a colourful young woman, her daughter, the daughter’s imaginary rabbit, love, magic, and chocolate. It reads almost like a picture book with confections sweetly painted on every page. I will be quite critical of the story later on in this review, so keep in mind that I do like it. The themes of food enjoyed together and the strength of female companionship make it a warming and pleasant read and I look forward to picking it up again.

It is carnaval in Lansquenet, a hamlet in the south of France, the day before Lent starts. A mother and a daughter who happened to travel past have stopped to watch the procession and the child is so delighted by the festival that she begs her mother to stay there. To her surprise, her mother agrees. Vianne Rocher, always on the move, thinks Lansquenet is as good a place to stay as any. She rents a house with a store space and she and her daughter, Anouk, move in. Lent, the season of self-denial, has started, but Vianne opens a chocolaterie and café in the devout, catholic village. This is not appreciated by Father Reynaud, the young priest of the village and a respected and severe man. More and more of his obedient parishioners come to confession to tell him that they broke Lent with Vianne’s delicious chocolate. The woman embodies everything he hates: disorder, paganism and hedonism.

Vianne, meanwhile, has a little bit of magic that helps her know exactly what any of her customers need. Her chocolates have wonderful effects. They cure insomnia, spice up people’s love lives or calm people down. Vianne lends her ear to anyone who wants to talk to her and makes her shop a safe haven for the outcasts of the village, as well as the passing river-travellers who are shunned in most places. She helps a woman leave her abusive husband and an old woman meet her estranged grandson in secret, rebelling against the town’s rigid customs. She undermines the church as well, by opening het shop on Sundays and in general disobeying everything Father Reynaud says. On top of it all, she plans a ‘Grand Festival of Chocolate’ to take place on Easter Sunday. Over time, the rivalry between Vianne and Father Reynaud turns into a full-blown conflict.

The book is very well-written: smooth, flowing with rich imagery that suits the subject of chocolate. The story is alternatingly told by Vianne and Father Reynaud, who have very different voices. This impressed me, because it adds to the experience of the story but must be very hard to write, changing style every chapter. The story has a host of colourful characters and the slow escalation of the old and new forces in Lansquenet are fascinating to read. I’m not surprised that the book was quickly turned into a film. It lends itself extremely well for that.

It was just a shame that I didn’t like the two main characters, Vianne Rocher and Father Reynaud. The last one isn’t supposed to be likable, but Vianne is. But with all her kindness, she can be remarkably cruel. She enjoys making Father Reynaud uncomfortable and counts it as a victory every time she does something he disapproves of. Don’t get me wrong, he is not a nice man by any measure. He feels superior to his parishioners and likes the power he has over them. He likes to hold power over himself, too, priding himself on being as devout and sober as possible. He values regulations over love or compassion, which in my opinion is at odds with the Christian faith. When Joséphine Muscat leaves her abusive husband, he wants her to go back to him because of their marriage, while there is no reason to assume that the husband will ever be anything but a brute. Still, I don’t think you need to attack and ridicule the faith of the entire village to address the problems within it. Someone as free-spirited and open-minded as Vianne claims to be must see the good things faith and devotion can bring: hope, love, comfort, community. Instead, she sabotages church life and doesn’t stop until Father Reynaud is utterly humiliated.

Having a Festival of Chocolate on Easter Sunday strikes me as unnecessary provocative as well. Lent is the time of fasting, the time of self-denial, repentance and preparation. Easter, on the other hand, is a joyful day of celebration. Couldn’t Vianne wait to see how the village people, whom she has only known during Lent, would celebrate Easter on their own before deciding that she has to step in to cheer them up? There is a reason that religious calendars have high and low points. To demand high spirits year-round is unrealistic, but to assume that Easter won’t be a high point and needs to be replaced with something happier is insulting.

The story’s criticism of the way Father Reynaud’s wields excessive social control over this little village is fair, he deserved to fall from his pedestal. The priest takes advantage of his holy position to exercise a disproportionate amount of power. But the book would have been better if there was some kind of redemption for the priest, showing that some compassion and joy could bring new life to a once strong but now rigid faith. After all, he is just a man, probably the only educated man in his village. It’s not so strange that he feels lonely or that he, as time passed, has started to look down upon his neighbours. He follows de traditions of the priests before him, especially looking up to his direct predecessor, who led the parish when Reynaud was a boy in the village himself. Perhaps all he needs is someone to challenge him to be better. But the story doesn’t give him a second chance.

Vianne is not painted as the perfect flower child. I find her less of a role model than the book portrays her, but even the author hints at Vianne’s imperfections. The most obvious one has to do with her daughter, Anouk, whom she loves more than anything. Vianne takes the child with her in her nomadic existence, travelling from town to town and city to city, never settling anywhere. Naturally, Anouk thinks the world of her mother, but she is actually the only one she has. Anouk is lonely and comes up with an imaginary friend in the form of a rabbit called Pantoufle. Time and time again the girl begs her mother to stay in one place, but Vianne must travel whenever she feels change in the wind. Every time, Anouk has to leave the place and the people she knows to follow her mother’s magic intuition. It doesn’t seem fair to her.

I had no idea this book was part of a trilogy until I looked it up on Goodreads. Apparently, Vianne’s journey is not finished after Easter. I’m debating reading the other two books. My enjoyment of part one could depend on the route Joanne Harris takes in the sequels. If Vianne realises she can hurt people by doing whatever she likes, if the priest learns to re-examine his faith, then I would be much less annoyed and much more entertained by the story. Still, it’s good to read about values you disagree with and once again, the book is really well-written. It’s definitely worth a read.

Chili Chocolate Award for the best advice about what to add to your cup of hot chocolate.

Joanne Harris, Chocolat (London, 1999)

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Jo Robin

The Essex serpent by Sarah Perry

Have you ever seen the BBC series North and South with the gorgeous Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage? There’s a scene at the beginning where the main character’s family leave their rural home to go live in an industrial city in 19th century England. The contrast between the seemingly idyllic, rural village full of light and colour and the smokey, loud industrial town reminded me a lot of the setting and atmosphere in The Essex Serpent, which is set around the same time and is also about a woman who leaves an industrial town, London for a rural village. Also, in both stories people from the rural areas and town have difficulty understanding each other, as well as having difficulty interacting with each other and seeing the merit of each other’s backgrounds.

This is a character-driven book where the plot is used to give the characters a reason to interact with each other. Therefore, I’ll first tell you about the characters before I tell you about the story. I am going to explain a lot of characters to you, but don’t be afraid, I’ll do it in families, so you can keep track of them. First, you have Cora and her son Francis and Cora’s best friend and companion Martha, all from London. Cora was recently widowed and trying to find herself again. Her husband was controlling and abusive, and Cora is slowly realizing what she wants out of her own life. It turns her into a society-avoiding recluse who likes to wear man’s clothing one week and woman’s the other because she doesn’t care anymore, which sounds perfect, to be honest. One of her interests is palaeontology and to study those things best, she moves to rural Essex with her son and Martha. Martha is a fierce woman who fights for the housing rights of the poor in London. There’s also a doctor called Luke Garret who is a good friend of Cora. They met because he was the one treating her husband on his deathbed. He is a brilliant surgeon and also dabbles in hypnosis and gets a lot of critique for his ungodly experimentation with science. Life and Death are very much considered a matter of God and not something humans should interfere in. In rural Essex, there is the village pastor Will Ransome, his Wife Stella and their children. Will is conservative and fears that too much science means going against God’s will. He is devoted to his rural flock and adamant to guide them away from bad superstition. His wife is kind and adored by everyone who knows her, but also ill. Throughout the story, her health is declining.

At the beginning of the book Cora, Martha and Francis arrive in Essex because they’ve heard a rumour about the mythical Essex serpent who supposedly returned. The arrival of the serpent is a bad omen and is believed to bring destruction just as the last time it came. This belief is strengthened because its arrival coincides with the mysterious death of a young man. Cora doesn’t believe in the bad rumours but sees the advent of the serpent as a good chance to make her name in the academical world. She wants to look for paleontological proof of the old one, but also to find proof for the new one. Another reason to be in Essex for Cora is to flee from the oppression of London society and mourning her late husband. She feels free now her husband has died and is tired of pretending to mourn for him. In Essex, they meet Will and his family with whom they strike up a friendship despite the fact that they disagree about the truth of the serpent. Will doesn’t believe in the existence of the serpent and thinks the belief in the serpent is a dangerous superstition which will turn people away from God. Cora pursues the serpent for scientific purposes. The thing that’s clear is that the idea of the serpent has a hold on everyone and makes everyone go crazy out of fear. People believe the serpent has magical powers to change people’s behaviour and that the arrival of the serpent is a bad omen. Whether the serpent really has the power to change people’s behaviour or whether it is the fear for the serpent, people certainly start behaving in strange ways. People lash out at each other, people fall in love, they get a mysterious illness where they are fascinated with the colour blue or burst into hysterical bursts of laughing for no apparent reason. After Cora and Will’s first meeting, many visits and letters follow and all the other people Cora and Will know get pulled into the story and they all play their part in the unfolding of the mystery surrounding the Essex serpent.

The debate between superstition, religion and science is one of the central themes of this book combined with the question whether the three can merge. This debate is fought out within the friendship of Cora and Will, wherein Cora is the advocate of science and Will that of religion. They both have a different take on the serpent but are equally fascinated by it. Also, they are constantly at odds with each other. This makes them very unlikely friends, and that is what I liked most about their friendship. Not all friendships are based on solely similar interests and I always enjoy reading about those kinds of friendships. Thura, Jo and I are also very different, and that friendship works very well as well. This particular friendship shows that science and religion can work together if you don’t feel the need to constantly agree with each other on every topic you discuss and when there is a solid understanding of trust, mutual respect and affection. This book used their friendship as a very effective metaphor to show us that. In general, the book uses a lot of metaphors. The whole idea of the serpent and how different people interpret it is used as a way to talk about faith. The metaphors in this book are interesting, but at times I felt Perry could have explained them better because so much in this book made no sense to me. It felt as if Perry attempted to write a story with so many different topics and meanings that she lost track of some of them and didn’t manage to fully flesh them out and explain them well.

To me, this book felt too ambitious. Not only in the number of unexplained metaphors used to tell the story, but also in the number of characters in this book. I haven’t even introduced half of them to you, and I was already afraid they were too many. All the characters in the book are involved in the plot and have their own problems and background stories that are relevant to the plot. This made the book very difficult to follow because I could not keep track of all the storylines. Especially while I was also trying to figure out how all the storylines came together in the overall plot. This is by no means an easy book to read, and the ending left me confused, but that could be because the writing style did not resonate with me. Perry’s writing style felt too deliberately ‘deep’ as if she assumed that by not telling things the reader would figure them out by themselves and be delighted with how mysterious the book was. A mysterious book does not have to be written in such a way to be deemed mysterious though. But maybe this critique is personal frustration because I could not make the book work for me. I really wanted to love it, but in the end, I did not.

Still, I would encourage people to try this book. There is so much to love: a mysterious creature, unexpected friendships, people going mad and beautiful descriptions of rural England. Also, all the individual storylines are nice to read, and the characters are fascinating, especially how they navigate the differences between country and city life. The writing style did not resonate with me and I found myself re-reading whole passages because I couldn’t get what Perry wanted to say. If this review sparked your interest I suggest you find a copy in your nearest library or bookshop to read the first few chapters to see if the writing style works for you. A writing style can make or break a book and is for a large part dependent on personal preference and this book deserves to be appreciated by those who can, like every book does.

Schrödinger’s serpent award for a story about a serpent that is either alive or isn’t

 

Sarah Perry, the Essex serpent (London, 2017)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

 

The Reader (Der Vorleser) by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader is one of the books that had a profound impact on me and that’s not because of the plot, but because of the characters and the problems in a society that are brought to light. For this reason this review will contain a lot of spoilers. If that bothers you, don’t read it, but this really isn’t that kind of mystery novel with a surprising plot. Sure, there were some twists here and there, but I’m not trying to sell The Reader on those merits alone. When I was young, I was quite distrustful of all things German and I think in some way I adopted this attitude from my family, part of which was Jewish. But ever since I was around fifteen years old I wanted to get rid of this sentiment, because I had started to understand how dangerous it can be to view any group of people as a whole as ‘something’. This generalisation is what causes such deeply ingrained hate in people. So I tried to learn more about Germany, visited it many times and read The Reader in German for the first time when I was fifteen. And I can tell you; this book will change the way you look at post-war Germany and the people from different generations who had to deal with those changes taking place. It’s about intimate relationships torn apart by the war crimes of the Second World War. But the strength of this book is that it’s also about two rather ordinary German people, who provide an example of how the entire nation was affected by the war.

The book consists of three parts, taking place in 1958, 1966 and 1995, and Michael Berg is the narrator and protagonist of all three parts. In 1958 Michael is fifteen years old and on the day his hepatitis sets in, he is on his way to school. But after a few minutes he can’t walk on anymore and vomits on the sidewalk. An unknown woman then rushes outside to help him, to clean him up and to make sure he gets home safely. After three boring months of lying in bed, Michael is allowed to go for short walks again and his mother immediately makes him take some flowers to the lady that helped him. Her name is Hanna Schmitz and Michael realises he is attracted to her when he sees her getting dressed. In shame he flees, but only to return the next week. He can’t stay away from her and so their affair starts. But when Hanna learns Michael might not pass the school year due to his illness, she becomes furious. She demands he’ll study harder and quizzes him on what he’s learned. When Michael tells her of the books and plays he has to read for school, Hanna asks him for the first time to read to her. And so their ritual after school starts to take shape: They read, shower together, make love and lie together for a little while before Michael has to leave again. Hanna is all that Michael knows, thinks about and loves, until she disappears all of sudden.

In 1966 Michael is a law student and participating in a study by a professor and a group of students on the trials against war criminals. As part of their study, they watch a lot of trials and the students take notes. The trials that Michael observes are about a few women who used to be guards at a camp where Jewish women were held and the charge is that they let about 300 women burn to death in a church after a bomb fell on it. Hanna is one of the defendants, one of the guards, and it’s the first time Michael sees her again in eight years. The trial appears to go very badly for her in particular, especially when she is accused by the other women of writing the report on the fire after it happened. In the end, the other guards brand her the leader: the one not only writing the report but also taking all of the decisions and the one who let the Jewish women burn to death. Hanna denies all of this, but when she is asked to provide an example of her handwriting, she suddenly confesses to writing the report. And that’s when Michael realises she is illiterate and willing to keep that secret at all costs. She’d rather be accused of murder, and so Michael decides not to come forward with what he knows.

In the third part, many years have passed and Michael is a person who no longer feels anything, and he only vaguely registers emotions or events. Hanna was convicted to a large number of years in prison. After he has divorced his wife, Michael has started to send Hanna tapings of him reading books to her and, in childish hand, she has started to reply. Then, all of a sudden, Michael receives a letter from the prison that she will be released, as he is the only one who has been in contact with her. But when he visits her, both are left with a feeling of disappointment and on the day of her release, she commits suicide. From the guard Michael learns that Hanna did learn to read in prison and immediately started to read many books by Holocaust survivors. The trial against Hanna and the other guards had only one real piece of evidence and that was a book a young survivor of the fire wrote afterwards. After her death, Hanna has left Michael with the task to give all of her money away to this woman who survived. So Michael travels to the United States, but the author will not take Hanna’s money: she refuses to absolve her. So instead, Michael decides to donate the money to a Jewish cause combating illiteracy in Hanna’s name.

I‘d like to go into three points of commentary, based on the three parts of the book. The Reader was originally written in German and the first time I read it, I read it in German. One of the first things that struck me while reading was how the sentences were unusually short, especially for German prose. Schlink has a style of writing that is very to the point, which creates distance as well as a certain closeness to the experiences of the characters. One thing that I noticed, and really liked, is that he pays a lot of attention to the way people move. In the first part of the book, Michael falls in love with Hanna when she puts on her stockings. The fifteen year old describes what he sees and he says she‘s not pretty, but strong and her movements practical. And to him, that is what makes her beautiful. The ways she puts on her stockings is like she is completely in her own world for a few moments and he cannot look away. Michael, as the narrator, confesses that he has asked many of his later girlfriends to put on stockings in the same slow manner, but they could never recreate it. They would always try to do it in an erotic manner, but that was not the way that Hanna did it. I was fifteen myself when I first read this book and I completely understood this new adolescent kind of sexual fantasy he has and it has everything to do with the fact that she is not posing, and how she never accepts that she’s pretty, but he is just able to look inside of her for a few moments. All this and many more moments Schlink manages to describe in only a few short sentences.

Bernhard Schlink is German law professor and a judge, born in 1944. This makes him part of the ‘second generation’ after the war as well, and this is probably how he manages to capture the difficulties this generation especially had to deal with. The people who had lived through the war were busy fixing the country, rebuilding, as one does after a war. I have often thought that the second generation was left with an equally hard task and that is to deal with the emotions of the war, the ruins that were left, even though they weren’t even there when it happened: the horrific legacy that they never asked for. When Michael attends the war crimes trials he wonders what his generation is even meant to do with all of this information on the horrors visited upon the Jews. And in a way he answers his own question when he describes the position in which this group of students have placed themselves: they believe they’re in integral part of the processing of the past. They believe they can be objective and they can condemn the criminals, their country and even their parents, to shame. Hanna breaks Michael’s arrogant attitude, which he has had ever since she left when he was fifteen, simply by making it impossible for him to see, objectively, nothing but a criminal. But Hanna does something greater by just being honest and naïve. When the judge asks her at the trial: if she willingly signed certain documents, knowing people were to die, why did she still do her job? And Hanna is confused because in her mind she just did her work and in turn, even though you’re not supposed to ask a judge a question, she asks him: What would you have done? She is sincerely confused and, of course, the judge has no answer: there is no answer. I’m not trying to defend the guards of Auschwitz or any war criminals here, but in the aftermath of a war you can never objectively judge. There is no black and white, there’s just people who have made good or bad decisions and even that is often unclear. Understanding is not the same as forgiving and this I how I felt about Hanna’s crimes, or rather, her failing to do what’s right. Because of her illiteracy she cannot see the consequences, and I felt that this might be the main warning by Schlink: ignorance can have massive and disastrous consequences.

The main thing that bothered me when I first read the book was how Hanna would rather be branded a murderer and the leader in letting 300 Jewish women get burned to death, than admit she can’t read or write. How can the shame of being illiterate be worse than the shame of the crimes she was charged with, even though she was innocent of some? But I’ve read this book many times now and I think I understand. Fighting against the stigma of illiteracy is something she has done all her life. It’s why she always quit her jobs and left when she got promoted and why she ended up working as a guard. When she is accused of being the leader she simply accepts that fact and no longer fights it. She wasn’t able to read the book written by the survivor that is the main piece of evidence, so she has no plan in her defence. She just goes with it and doesn’t want to be shamed any further. Michael realises this and decides not to out her secret, and in that he also accepts his own guilt: he is guilty of not speaking up, but also guilty of once loving a war criminal. But I think there’s something more to Hanna keeping her secret at any cost. She believes in the magic of books. She is drawn to them, and that’s why she wanted Michael to read to her and, as it turns out, many girls from the camp read to her. That’s also why she gets so angry at Michael when he says he barely studies in school: he’s wasting his opportunities. And because she appreciates books so much and is even hungry for them, her secret is even more shameful. In the end, she does learn how to read and reads books by Holocaust survivors in prison. She then commits suicide immediately upon release, because now she understands.

There are so many more things I could say about this book. I loved the character of Hanna especially and she will forever continue to fascinate me with her practical and uncalculated ways. I find it fascinating how far she will go in making egocentric choices just to keep her personal weaknesses a secret. Now we can see, looking back at all that happened during the Holocaust, how dangerous this attitude is, but she couldn’t and many ordinary people couldn’t. This book is all about not speaking up and therefore accepting guilt: the guilt that was on the second generation and still on Germany today. I could write more on the evident flaws between relationships and marriages that always seem to fail when there is no communication. I could write so much more on the difference between accepting responsibility and accepting guilt, as a person but as a nation as well. But this is a book about two people who made bad decisions, partly because they didn’t know and partly because they’re just ordinary people. And so the book could only end in tragedy and sadness. But in order for something like this to never happen again, these stories of failure are so important, as well as breaking the taboos that come with war and life in general. Schlink breaks through all of the taboos on illiteracy, sexuality, crimes against humanity, disabilities, objectivity and guilt and responsibility, and most of all shame. This is a sad book overall, but there’s hope as well: there’s hope that we can do better next time, if we just educate ourselves.

Admiration award: for Germany and how they have dealt with their past over the last sixty years

Bernhard Schlink, Der Vorleser (Zurich, 1995)

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Thura Nightingale