Bizarre and very good. Nearly the first half of the book is an erotic love affair that takes place in post-war Germany between a fifteen-year-old kid and a woman twice his age—a woman he meets after falling ill on his way home from school one day. Hanna takes him in, and then they become…lovers. Weird, but well-told. It’s awkward, of course. They don’t really have a relationship as much as an affair, and throughout it, we know something is strange (besides their obvious age difference). But then Hanna disappears. Any more details would spoil the second half of the book, though frankly, the “secret” that the author alludes to is fairly obvious, and it doesn’t really add to the suspense. I liked the second half much better than the first, though now that I’ve finished it, I’ll probably go back and read the first half, likely picking up a few more details. Hanna’s secret doesn’t really explain the outcome of the book and/or as much about her character as it needed to, so that part seemed to need more or better development. Still, there is much to like about this. One passage that caught me was when Michael was in college and skiing with his friends over Christmas break and describing how he’s falling apart: “I don’t know what the doctors diagnose when someone isn’t freezing even though he should be freezing. My own diagnosis is that the numbness had to overwhelm my body before it would let go of me, before I could let go of it” (168). I can’t disclose what the numbness was, but I love the way Schlink shows how a body can go numb both from physical cold and emotional cold. And that sometimes it has to completely shut down before it can feel again.
I also liked the way the book makes us think beyond the major roles of those who carried out the Holocaust, about everyone who lived in Germany at that time—and the guilt felt by a whole generation of people who, like the surviving Jews, ultimately had to move on with their lives.
This book has been turned into a movie, and I’ve heard it’s very well done. I plan to rent it and compare. (fiction)