Review: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

For the few hours it takes to read this short book, the outside world disappears. When it reappears at the book’s conclusion, your view of the behavior of some “ordinary” Germans during and after World War II is transformed. This novel sweeps you up and totally immerses you in dramatic tension, quick narrative pace, and thought-provoking views of the German past by creating a unique love story involving singular characters and spanning several decades.

Although this is a book about the Holocaust, it is not primarily a book about the suffering of the Jews. It is instead a book about the Germans and, more importantly, the legacy of the Holocaust which has been left to a new generation who have had to deal with the disturbing and sometimes cruel knowledge of what their parents and elders may have done (or failed to do) during the Nazi era.

It is a poignant meditation on love, loss, guilt, human frailty and reconciliation with the past. Set in the late 1950s, The Reader follows the affair between 15-year-old Michael and Hanna, a woman more than twice his age. As he blindly enters into this affair Michael inadvertently enters a world of secrets, lies, and age-old wounds that will bind these two strange bedfellows together for the rest of their lives.

Schlink uses the relationship between his two central characters to explore German guilt and the legacy and shared responsibility passed from one generation to the next.

…the pain I went through because of my love for Hanna was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate.

Divided into three parts, The Reader begins with the blossoming of the troubled, but tender, relationship between Michael and Hanna, which is unexpectedly cut short by her sudden departure. Part 2 sees the couple reunited in less than ideal circumstances, as Hanna stands trial for her role in Nazi war crimes. In Part 3, with the benefit of time and distance, Michael begins his one-sided correspondence with Hanna while she serves out her prison sentence until he learns that she will soon be released.

Michael’s attempts to remember the good times he shared with Hanna are initially eclipsed by the dark truths he discovered about her past during the trial. He struggles to reconcile the conflicting images of the Hanna he loved – a strong, feminine figure who smells of soap and sweat, with his post-trial images of her as a ‘cruel and impervious’ SS guard capable of murder.

While reading this book, I found myself wondering what I would be like if I were a young modern German and had to deal with the knowledge that my parents and grandparents did nothing to stop the horror of those times or perhaps may have actively contributed to it. Michael has the misfortune to fall in love with an older woman who was complicit in a horrible crime. The question that torments him is this; how can I be a good, warm, loving person if the person I love more than any other has done such a terrible thing? The story of Hanna, and his own inexplicable love and regard for her, haunts him throughout his life. Michael’s quest to understand why this should be so is the basis for much of this subtly compelling book.

The book would have had a longer lasting effect for me, however, if an important “secret,” one which, in fact, impels Hanna’s actions, had not been obvious to me from the start. Her behavior as the book progresses simply confirmed my early suspicions, preventing the suspense from developing fully. By the time the author formally reveals Hanna’s secret, almost 2/3 of the book has passed. Additionally, I am not sure that protecting this secret is sufficient motivation to rationalize the full extent of Hanna’s self-destruction. Michael’s philosophical ponderings, which add immeasurably both to the thematic scope and depth of this book, does not fully explain his motivations, his actions, or his inactions, at least on the human level. Nevertheless, this is a totally absorbing, memorable novel with unusual characters in unusual conflicts, one which will reverberate long after you close its covers.

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