Monday's book

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (translated by Carol Brown Janeway)
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The time is the Fifties, the place a German university town. A grammar-school boy is sick against the wall of a tenement house. A woman takes him into the courtyard, rinses his face and walks him home. For the next six months the 15-year-old is in bed with hepatitis. Convalescing, he takes the woman, a tram conductor, a bunch of flowers.

Thus an affair begins between Michael and the older woman, Hanna. It lasts only a few months but is the most intense experience of his life, introducing him to emotions and moral quandaries that had previously been quite abstract.

In its early chapters, The Reader evokes the heady, erotic encounters in the conductor's shabby flat. The woman asks the boy to read to her: his school texts, plays, stories. The illicit hours, stolen from school, become a repeated ritual of reading, showering and love-making. Slowly the teenager fully recovers, and attains a confidence that marks him out from his peers.

One afternoon, when Michael is at the swimming-pool, he glimpses Hanna watching him. He does not greet her, and she goes away. The following day she has disappeared from town. Michael is filled with guilt, but gradually "the memory of her stopped accompanying me".

He completes his school studies and enters university.

"When I saw Hanna again it was in a courtroom," is the laconic beginning of a subsequent chapter, a sentence that could be in a thriller. In fact, it is one of the strengths of this remarkable novel that it uses the conventions of the thriller without betraying its theme: the unavoidable complicity of those born "too late" to be adult in the Nazi period, with those who committed or tolerated its crimes. It would be unfair to give away further turns of the plot; it's enough to say that Michael, now a law student, has enrolled in the seminar of a former emigre concerned with justice in relation to the Third Reich - which analyses a war-crimes trial in a nearby town.

At the opening of this trial, Michael sees Hanna. She is a defendant, one of a group of female camp guards accused of allowing a church full of prisoners to burn down at the end of the war.

There is no avoiding the past for Michael or his generation. As he reflects, the student radicals of 1968 could not undo their love for their parents. Worse, perhaps, "dealing with the Nazi past was not the reason for the generational conflict, but merely the form it took." It is this constellation that Schlink's novel pushes to an exemplary extreme. Michael falls in love with an older woman who displaces his own, barely described mother.

Phoenix House, pounds 12.99

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