The Reader – Bernhard Schlink

Title: The Reader
Author: Bernhard Schlink
ISBN: 9780307454898
Pages: 224
Release Date: June 1997
Publisher: Vintage
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
Review: Originally posted at Curled Up With a Good Book
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

The Reader is the story of fifteen-year-old Michael Berg and his relationship with Hanna Schmitz, a forty-year-old woman. One day, Michael is taken ill outside Hanna’s apartment and she takes him in, cares for him, then sends him on his way. When he returns to her apartment to express his gratitude, he is mesmerized by how beautiful she is, in her own way. Eventually, Hanna takes Michael as a lover. The more he sees her, the more Michael realizes he knows nothing about Hanna. And there is a reason for that – Hanna is a woman with a secret, a secret that does not become clear until many years later.

More than anything else, The Reader is a Holocaust novel. Unlike traditional novels on the theme, however, it doesn’t actually take place during the time period of the Holocaust. Instead, the book is set in Germany, as the generation after the atrocious acts and horrors of the Holocaust is coming of age. In large part, the novel is about guilt. As these young men and women look at their parents, they see people who, while not complicit in the murdering of millions of innocent Jews, tolerated mass killings. Their parents lived side-by-side with murderers. How can you reconcile that? Are they to blame? Is everyone to blame?

The relationship between Hanna and Michael is difficult to swallow. Simply from their age difference, it is clear that Hanna is taking advantage of Michael, seeking some sort of comfort; she is trying to hide from her past and looking for companionship in a world where she is alone. In the book, Michael actually benefits from his relationship with Hanna as well. Being with the older woman gives him confidence, and he becomes more and more popular at school. As Hanna becomes frantic and emotional and Michael tries to calm her, it is sometimes easy to forget that he is the teenager. However, it does seem that Hanna manipulates Michael to keep him under her power. Because she doesn’t talk about her past, it is easy to assume her motives. The question is, once Hanna’s secrets are revealed, is it actually more complicated than that, or was she just a selfish, insecure woman?

The Reader is an extremely stark novel. While you would think the book would be emotional because of the affair and the subject matter of the Holocaust, it’s actually very level. The entire book seems almost numb, completely detached from reality. The stark quality of the prose actually helps get the message of the novel across because it isn’t hindered by emotion.

The Reader is a provocative novel that people will talk about for years to come. The questions of moral responsibility and guilt are eternal ones that humanity will always have to struggle with. It seems like a weighty read, but it isn’t. Great for book clubs because of the potential for discussion on each of the topics presented, this is a book you can’t help but feel strongly about, one way or another.

Comments

  1. I read this one several years ago and I wish I could remember it more. All I really remember is that it left a bad taste in my mouth. Your review makes me want to pick it back up again, though.

  2. I read this one several years ago and I wish I could remember it more. All I really remember is that it left a bad taste in my mouth. Your review makes me want to pick it back up again, though.

  3. I wonder if you would be against Anna and I posting a snippet of your review (with a link to this full review) on our War Through the Generations blog for the WWII reading challenge?!

  4. I wonder if you would be against Anna and I posting a snippet of your review (with a link to this full review) on our War Through the Generations blog for the WWII reading challenge?!

  5. I just saw the movie (I’ll post soon) and talk about powerful! I hope to read the book soon. Great review.

  6. I just saw the movie (I’ll post soon) and talk about powerful! I hope to read the book soon. Great review.

  7. I read this one ages ago and your comment about it being very level.. numb almost…that’s a good description. I think when I read it I thought it was a bit too sterile.

  8. I read this one ages ago and your comment about it being very level.. numb almost…that’s a good description. I think when I read it I thought it was a bit too sterile.

  9. This book seems to be one readers either love or hate. I’m glad you took so much away from it. I did, too.

  10. This book seems to be one readers either love or hate. I’m glad you took so much away from it. I did, too.

  11. I read this one years ago and enjoyed it a lot. It’s very short and almost too simple but left quite an impact on me. Great review!

  12. I read this one years ago and enjoyed it a lot. It’s very short and almost too simple but left quite an impact on me. Great review!

  13. As you know, I loved this book! Interesting analysis!

  14. As you know, I loved this book! Interesting analysis!

  15. Great review, Krishna! I’ve wanted to read this but just haven’t got around to reading it yet. I’m also looking forward to watching the movie, though I’ve no idea when…

  16. Great review, Krishna! I’ve wanted to read this but just haven’t got around to reading it yet. I’m also looking forward to watching the movie, though I’ve no idea when…

  17. I’ve been wanting to read this book but haven’t had time yet. It sounds like it gives you a lot to think about. Thanks for the great review. I linked to it here on War Through the Generations.

    –Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

  18. I’ve been wanting to read this book but haven’t had time yet. It sounds like it gives you a lot to think about. Thanks for the great review. I linked to it here on War Through the Generations.

    –Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

  19. Interesting review, makes me want to see if I’ll love it or hate it 🙂

  20. Interesting review, makes me want to see if I’ll love it or hate it 🙂

  21. Hmmm…interesting. I picked up a used copy of this book a few weeks ago because I saw it was coming out as a movie. Still haven’t picked it up…wonder if I’ll be on the love it or hate it side? Thanks for the review.

  22. Hmmm…interesting. I picked up a used copy of this book a few weeks ago because I saw it was coming out as a movie. Still haven’t picked it up…wonder if I’ll be on the love it or hate it side? Thanks for the review.

  23. I found this a tough novel to get through but it’s, as you say, provocative. I think the tale will stick with me for some time.

  24. I found this a tough novel to get through but it’s, as you say, provocative. I think the tale will stick with me for some time.

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