I have just finished reading “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink.
I have known about this book for a while because it is fairly prominent book, and has been turned into a film, which i’ve never seen either. However, i have never read it, until now. This is because i’m starting to attend a translated fiction-themed book club, and the first book is “The Reader”.
The blurb reads:
“For 15-year-old Michael Berg, a chance meeting with an older woman leads to far more than he ever imagined. The woman in question is Hanna, and before long they embark on a passionate, clandestine love affair which leaves Michael both euphoric and confused. For Hanna is not all she seems.
Years later, as a law student observing a trial in Germany, Michael is shocked to realize that the person in the dock is Hanna. The woman he had loved is a criminal. Much about her behaviour during the trial does not make sense. But then suddenly, and terribly, it does – Hanna is not only obliged to answer for a horrible crime, she is also desperately concealing an even deeper secret.”
I was intrigued by the relationship between Michael and Hanna, because it seems to just suddenly happen out of blue. Michael is maybe a bit naïve but being with Hanna teaches him many things. Hanna is a bit of mystery and we don’t learn much about her until later on in the novel, but she seems secure in herself. Her behaviour and her reactions to some things Michael says seem a little odd and lead to them fighting. The sad thing is that Michael always seems to be the one apologizing, even if he isn’t in the wrong, and this surely does some damage to him. Michael reads books to Hanna and it seems very intimate but it’s strange that a grown woman needs a child to read to her. In a way it feels like a mother-son relationship has been flipped on it’s head, with him looking after her at various points through the novel.
When Hanna disappears, Michael slowly gets on with his life and goes to study law. He attends a trial where Hanna is a defendant and turns out to be responsible for several deaths during the war, and this throws out so many questions for Michael and he is determined to find out what happened. He wonders how a normal person can commit such a terrible crime, and how a normal person can love someone who committed such crimes. All the things he has done makes it hard for him to live a normal life: his marriage fails, other relationships fail, he feels numb with the things he knows, he doesn’t want to be a lawyer or judge, but becomes a researcher/writer/lecturer type person who doesn’t socialise much. When he sees Hanna again, he is given the chance to find out her secret, and it turns out that she is illiterate and many things fall into place and suddenly make sense after all these years. He feels guilty at not sharing this knowledge and knowing it could have made her life easier, but he understands her shame of not being able to read and keeps it to himself.
I give “The Reader” a big 9/10 because i loved this novel, it was easy to read and i was fascinated by their relationship and the effect it had on Michael’s life, feelings and beliefs. The themes of sex, guilt, and shame make it a great read, even though the war crimes are horrible to think about, and it’s amazing how one little secret can ruin so many lives. I also love the variety of books which Michael reads to Hanna and love that books are part of their special connection. I wish i’d read it sooner because it is truly a great novel and even better because it is translated from the original German!