The Reader, Bernhard Schlink
Hailed for its coiled eroticism and the moral claims it makes upon the reader, this mesmerizing novel is a story of love and secrets, horror and compassion, unfolding against the haunted landscape of postwar Germany.
When he falls ill on his way home from school, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover. She enthralls him with her passion, but puzzles him with her odd silences. Then she inexplicably disappears.
When Michael next sees her, he is a young law student and Hanna is on trial for a hideous crime. But as he watches her refuse to defend herself, Michael gradually realizes that his former lover may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.
This is the fourth book I've read from Oprah's Book Club (a total coincidence no doubt). My ex-boyfriend picked it up for me some time ago, probably because of the title and my well-known penchant for words. Or maybe it was just on sale. I read it back then, and liked the book for its many layers and melancholy tone. But it was this particular issue that made me think of the book, and in the next paragraph you'll find out why.
The protagonist of the book, Michael Berg, recounts the events of his life that revolve around Hanna, a woman he meets by chance. The novel spans some twenty years, and Michael grows from a fifteen-year-old boy to a grown man. The first part of the novel centres on the relationship between Michael and Hanna, as Michael struggles between his love for Hanna and their clear age difference. At times Hanna is the perfect lover - caring and kind, passionate and experienced. But at other times, Hanna is manipulative, cruel, and unforgiving. It is only much later that Michael starts to question their relationship, and that's where the second part of the book picks up. With a deft hand, Schlink explores the repercussions that childhood events can have on a person later on in life, as exemplified by Michael's clear inability to let go of the past.
It is only later that Michael starts to piece everything together. As a law student, he meets Hanna again in a courtroom. We learn that Hanna had been a Nazi guard for a prison camp in World War II, and is being prosecuted for a war crime. Although Michael and Hanna never exchange words during the trial, it is apparent that there are still lingering feelings between them. Whether it is love or something else is up to the reader to determine. When Michael comes face to face with his past, he must deal with the present reality before it's too late.
Schlink sets the melancholy mood of the book early on. Michael is the perfect protagonist, even in retrospect, because he's unbiased. He tells the story as it unfolds, seldom offering explanations. Things happened as they were, and for this the reader is able to come to his or her own conclusions. But it is because of this that the book falters - Michael seems oddly detached when he recounts his affair with Hanna. Even the surprising ending is a little remote, as if Michael is watching the story from a third person point of view.
In the hands of a weaker writer, Hanna would have come off as a villain. But Schlink is careful not to alienate his readers with the fact that Hanna had participated in a horrible war crime. In the end, Hanna is neither excused nor pardoned for her actions, but comes off as a three-dimensional person nonetheless. The book does discuss the events and lingering feelings of World War II, but not in depth. At first this may seem like an oversight by the author, but upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that Schlink has decided to use World War II not as a catalyst, but merely as a backdrop for his story.
The Reader is a haunting story of childhood love and obsession, of denial and acceptance, and of growing up and apart. Pick up a copy for yourself and make Oprah proud. C.Ho.
THE READER: out of 5