Needless to say, I’ve been a little MIA these past few months! I wish I had a better excuse than life, but I don’t! But I’m busting back on to the scene with a vengence and putting three whole book reviews into one. So, without further ado, I give to you my reivew for Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans.
The Reader is a book that I literally just picked up and finished within a day. It was one of the most moving stories I’ve read in a long, long time. The story, for those of you who haven’t heard about it (or seen the movie, which I hear is also absolutely phenomenal) is the story of Michael and Hanna. Michael is a young German boy who meets and begins to conduct a passionate love affair with Hanna, a woman almost twenty years his senior. The two fall in love until one day Hanna leaves. Years later, when Michael is a law student covering the trial of female guards responsible for inmate death Auschwitz, Michael sees Hanna again, this time behind the defendant’s bench. Hanna is found guilty and spends years in prison. While she is there, Michael comes to the realization that Hanna is illiterate and this is why she enjoyed their old ritual of him reading to her. He begins to read to her on tape, sending her the cassettes and one day Michael recieves a letter from Hanna. She has learned to read and write, thanks to the help of his tapes, and she is facing release from prison soon. The events that follow, which I won’t spoil here because of how beautiful they are, make the last 50 pages of the book some of the most impactful. (5 Star)
I really zipped through this book, and part of the reason for that was because it’s not very long to begin with (its just over 200 pages) and the other part is because Schlink creates an external and internal world that is a joy to walk around it. Not only is the German countryside beautiful, but the mental processes that are required for Michael to accept some of the negative aspects of Hanna’s life are described in prose that walks the fine line between psychoanalysis and beautiful, beautiful self-exploration. Perhaps it’s difficult to explain, but I have this feeling that, because the work is a translation, orginally written in German, that the English verison had to do something a little extra to make up for whatever might have been lost in translation. Either way, if you have the time – and trust me, you have the time! – I would recommend picking up The Reader and letting the world overtake you for a few hours.
Purple Hibiscus was the book I finished right before I powered through The Reader. The worlds of the two novels are so entirely different it’s almost laughable. Kambili Achike is a 15-year-old Nigerian girl whose father is, essentially, the head of the local church. Along with her brother and mother, the family lives in an almost constant state of fear because, in addition to being devotedly pious, Kambili’s father is also emotionally and physically abusive. For a period of time, Kambili is sent to live wither her aunt who is a university professor and who, along with her three children, teach Kambili what it means to laugh, to love, to have fun and to, most importantly, realize that social and political involvement isn’t a sin. Kambili has lived her life in the fear that she will never be good enough, either for her father or for God, a fear that was instilled in her by her father. Her stay with her aunt makes her realize that this may not, in fact, matter as much as Kambili once thought it would have.
The thing I love most about this book is the relationship between the family of Kambili’s aunt, Ifeoma. The family is poor – very, very poor, especially compared to Kambili’s family – and yet they spend their days in song, laughter, hard work and prayer. The lessons they teach Kambili seem to jump right off the page, so much so that when Kambili finally starts to come around to their way of thinking I could feel myself cheering for her, wanting her to learn that she is good enough for so many things in life. In addition, the prose is sparse but provides a look at Nigerian life that is eye-opening. African literature is slowly becoming more and more a favorite genre of mine, and this book only increases my growing affection for such. It’s a powerful book about women who learn to become powerful in and of themselves. (5 Star)
When We Were Orphans yet again takes the reader to a completely different place (it seems like my geographical adventures are becoming more and more broad lately – Germany, Nigeria and, in this novel, Shanghai) and a completely different time period! The book focuses on Christopher Banks, a detective whose parents were abducted at a young age for fighting against the import of Indian opium in to China. Christopher grows up and, after making a name for himself as a detective, decides to side his most important case ever – what precisely happened to his parents when they were abducted years ago. The case sends him back in to the streets of war-torn Shanghai and forces him to choose between the woman he loves, the life he has created for himself in England, and the world he has always known. He gets answers, but not necessarily the answers he (or the reader) expects.
My biggest problem with this book was the ending. All of the strings are tied up, so its not one of those novels where the ends are left loose and the reader is left with questions. To the contrary, all questions are answered – I just didn’t like the answers provided! This is merely a matter of taste, but the book had an ending that just left me feeling a little – gilted. I wanted there to be a bit more, and the explanations given to some of the issues aren’t as satisfactory as I could have desired. Specifically, the ending of the relationship between Christopher and his childhood friend, a Japanese boy named Akira, left much to be desired in terms of satisfaction. Other than my issues with the quality of the ending, the book really is a beautiful trip back in time to the era when China was ruled by Chiang Kai Shek and when opium ruled the streets. I’m not the biggest fan of detective or mystery books, but I thought that Ishiguro did a wonderful job of blending the detective-narrative along with the other issues in Christopher’s life – his love affair with a climbing socialite, his paternal instincts towards the girl he adopts, and the internal struggle he will always face over why his parents were taken. Of the three books, When We Were Orphans was probably my least favorite, but that doesn’t make it a bad book in any way! Take my word for it – its a joy to read! (3 Star)
Next up on the list? Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, volume 1 in The Cairo Trilogy and, of course, more blog posts! Happy reading! – BM