Sunday, 22 February 2015

Post Number 11: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

I think you can all tell that it must be half term!  I have started and completed The Reader and am well on the way with my next read.  But I don't want to get distracted by my current reading matter at this point.  I wanted to read The Reader when it was first published in English in 1997, and then I was reminded of it in 2008 when it was released at the cinema.  But I don't know about you, sometimes things just pass me by.  I have intentions and they remain unrealised.

Oxfam Books & Music
Oxfam bookshop, Wells, Somerset.
And so we come to the beauty of charity shops.  My lovely cousin-in-law introduced me to the concept of the dedicated Oxfam Book Shop many years ago in the town of Wells. (She also introduced me to The Prayer of Owen Meany, but we'll agree to disagree over that one!) We whiled a happy hour or two in the charity shops there and I was hooked.   Now I have regular charity shop forays and often emerge with many titles, and so it was with The Reader. Once ownership was gained however, there is often a period of time on the shelves in my house, and for some reason, other reads kept gaining priority.  I have no idea why.
 This novel is beautiful. It is testimony to its author and a very talented translator,
Carol Brown Janeway. It begins with a tale of love;
I was going to write seduction, but that dirties it.  It is conveyed as something beautiful,
 and as the novel unfolds, it is clear that the brief affair was one that held lasting value
 for both Hanna and Michael. Their comparative ages do pose an ethical dilemma; she is
 36, he is only 15.  It is illegal.  It could be sordid, but it manages to transcend moral
objection because it is tender.

Image result for the reader book
But the love affair is not the whole story.  Arguably, it is not the central part of the story.  Hanna is illiterate.  This is a secret that she never divulges, but Michael works out years later when he is attending her trial. Without spoiling the story, I can tell you that the trial is for Nazi war crimes; it says so on the blurb of the book, so I am not giving away more than the publisher here. Its subject is harrowing but the novel is never sensationalist or sentimental.  It is an exploration of what it meant to be a German in 1939-1945. It explores collective guilt, shame and responsibility.  It examines the roles of the generation who acceded to or resisted the Nazi regime and furthermore, it examines the ongoing consciences of the generation that followed, a generation seeking to understand the actions of their parents.

The central themes then are love, literacy and collective conscience. It is a hauntingly beautiful, sad tale of a protagonist whose rite of passage has far reaching and tragic consequences. The resolution is utterly fitting and it is a novel that stays with you after the final page has been turned.

And I don't often do this; but another charity shop find before Christmas was the DVD of the book.  If I have enjoyed a novel, I am cautious about the film.  But the inclusion of Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet in lead roles led to believe it would be worth watching.  Indeed, I have never seen Fiennes in anything poor. The young Michael, played by David Kross is utterly convincing as a na├»ve, impressionable young man.  The film was almost entirely true to the book; just one conversation that in the novel was between Michael and his father was instead between him and his tutor. A later scene is also slightly adapted, but that would be spoilers! The film, in truth, is as good as the book and I really don't say that very often.

The novel made me think about the far reaching consequences of a war that was not even fought by the protagonist.  It made me consider the long term effect of conflict on a national conscience, but it made me consider it from the poignant and tragic perspective of Michael and Hanna. It was personal.

A must read if you, like me, let this one drift past.  Perhaps a re-read for those of you who were more on the ball in 1997!

And in case any of you are wondering what my current read is, it is another charity shop find of an older publication; Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Post Number 10: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Productive relaxation is, according to my daughter, the only type of relaxation that I indulge in regularly.  And I confess that it is because of winter productive relaxation that I haven't written a blog entry for a while.
Winter projects tend to involve paint, and it is with some surprise that I realise the conservatory, the kitchen and both childrens' rooms have had the once over since October! 

The moving out of child 1 to university last year meant that child 2 nipped into the larger room and took up squatter's rights pretty smartish!  To soften the blow for child 1, I permitted an entire re-vamp of both rooms.  To de-blue the large room and to de-brown the small one!  These latter two projects have taken up most of January/February, but the results are worth a little slowing down of my blog production.

Anyway...enough. This is danger of becoming an interior design blog!

I have still managed to keep reading and have recently finished Ian McEwan's The Children Act.  It is a short novel, and is, perhaps characteristically, a little bleak.  Its central character is QC Fiona Maye, a successful High Court Judge who works in the family courts.  Ironically, she and her husband have no children, and this is a source of sadness that is a recurrent, but subtle theme throughout the story.  Her marriage is a partnership of over three decades, but that doesn't protect it from vulnerability.  These personal stories form a background to the cases that she finds herself absorbed in. 

The significant case in The Children Act  is that of Adam Henry, a 17 year old who is refusing blood transfusing treatment because of his faith.  Both he and his parents are Jehovah's Witnesses. Because he is below the legal medical age of consent, Fiona is called to rule on the case.  Her remit is to make a decision over his care that is in the best interest of the child's welfare.  The book explores how difficult this is to define, particularly when the child in question is nearly of age and clearly articulate and intelligent.

Adam's characterisation develops as Fiona decides to meet with him prior to coming to a judgement.  This is a fascinating transition; the case loses its objectivity as both Fiona and the reader get to see, hear and empathise with Adam.

The "no spoilers" promise is hard to keep with this book, but  I will refrain from telling you what Fiona's ruling is, however I will say that its consequences are far reaching. And these consequences are what make the book interesting.  McEwan writes sparingly throughout this novel, but he evokes the characters of Fiona and Adam with compassion. Despite this, I felt like an observer, a little detached from the story.  Perhaps that is the intention.  A High Court Judge cannot, of all things, be regarded as sentimental.

So it is that big issues; of life and death, of welfare and its lack, of good and bad parenting are seen as though from a distance.  Perhaps that does indeed give us a more considered perspective.  In the opening section of the narrative McEwan writes about the fate of conjoined twins, surmising that it is "Blind luck, to arrive in the world with your properly formed parts in the right place, to be born to parents who were loving, not cruel, or to escape, by geographical or social accident, war or poverty. And therefore to find it so much easier to be virtuous." The novel shines a light on modern western values, laws, faith and medicine. The moral high ground may well seem to be clearer from a perspective that knows little of real suffering.

This is a well constructed story.  Its brevity means that it is precise, in its depiction of character and issues.
We leave the story wiser than we began.
Worth reading.

And looking forward to a very different novel; my next post will be on The Reader by Bernhard Schlink.