Book Review: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
Preview…I chose to delve into Bernhard Schlink’s novel “The Reader,” because, at only 218 pages, it seemed like a short and sweet selection. Although the actual word count was small, the story within was huge on meaning and teeming with deeply resonating themes. I found myself setting it down, time and time again, so that I could reflect on a series of particularly poignant passages.
“The Reader” is a novel told in three parts. We begin with our narrator at age 15, growing up in the precarious climate of post-war Germany. Coming home from school one day, Michael becomes overwhelmed by sickness. An unknown woman cleans him up and sees him safely home.
Later on Michael seeks out this woman to offer his thanks. Although there is a 21-year age difference between the boy and his benefactor, Hanna, the sexual attraction is undeniable. The two give themselves to each other physically, while holding back on the emotional entanglements of love. For months they continue on with their routine affair, which includes Hanna bathing Michael, Michael reading aloud to Hanna from various works of classic literature, and the two consummating their amorphous relationship. Until, without any warning, Hanna completely disappears.
Years later, their paths intersect once more. As a young law student, Michael is observing the war crime trials of a group of female SS guards pertaining to a specific atrocity that led to the deaths of more than 300 Jewish women. Hanna is among the accused.
Michael is sent into frenzied introspection. How could he have ever cared for such a heartless criminal? Was it just Hanna, whom he loved undeservingly, or should he have held back love to all of his elders involved in this tumultuous time period, everyone including his own parents though they were not active participants?
Michael is haunted by his memory of Hanna, unable to carry-on healthy adult relationships. He doesn’t know whether to be angry at her for spoiling his innocence, and he doesn’t know how he feels now upon reflection. Unable to escape her ubiquitous presence in his mind, he strikes up a clouded correspondence with her. He reads aloud to her, just as they had always done before. Recording his dictations, he mails the tapes to her in prison with no formal salutations or small talk — just the tapes.
Upon Hanna’s approaching release from prison, Michael must determine what the nature of their relationship is and whether or not to allow her into his life once more. Now, as it has been throughout her entire life, Hanna must decide whether it is more important to speak the truth or to protect oneself from shame.
A powerful journey, “The Reader” asks us to examine our own relations to our countries, our loved ones and ourselves, and it points out that sometimes life’s most important relationships elude definition.
You may like this book if…you like introspective novels, you are interested in post-war Germany and the Holocaust, you enjoy novels that are written in simple, yet powerful, language, you like novels that ask the question: “what would you do in this situation?”, you are interested in courtroom drama and the Nuremberg trials, you want to understand the meaning of the title (it’s been perfectly selected), you enjoyed the Oscar-winning film adaptation from 2008, you like being emotionally overcome by your reading selections, you like nontraditional “love” stories, you have a dark sentimentality when it comes to the arts.
You may not like this book if…you prefer not to read about something so emotionally raw as the Holocaust, you need the questions to be answered if they are going to be asked, you can’t get past the love affair between the boy and the woman.