Review: “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink
I’ll be spending this week talking about the books I read during last Saturday’s Readathon. I’ll be going in order from least favorite to most.
Before I started reading it, the only thing I knew about The Reader by Bernhard Schlink was that it was made into a movie starring Kate Winslet. I picked up a used copy in beautiful condition last year, and the novel’s short chapters and overall length prompted me to add it to my Readathon pile. I got through the first third during the Readathon.
By way of summary, here’s a bit from the back-of-the-book blurb:
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.
The next time Hanna and Michael meet is under very different circumstances. They tell you what those circumstances are on the back of the book, but I think it reveals too much.
Narrated by Michael, the novel is broken into three parts. Part 1 chronicles Michael’s teenage days, while parts 2 and 3 have as their backdrop the Holocaust and its aftermath. All told, the story spans several decades.
The Reader is of those haunting and bittersweet tales, with missed connections and wrong assumptions and lots of wanted-to-but-didn’t moments. As he relates their history, Michael struggles to come to terms with Hanna and their relationship. Michael and Hanna seem to move in opposite directions: where he matures from a teenager to a man as the book progresses, she is more like an onion whose layers are gradually peeled back to reveal her past. As he learns the pieces of Hanna’s past, Michael must continually readjust his conception of her.
The book also tackles moral issues, blurring the line between good and evil, forcing you to consider the exceptions and examine the middle ground. It does not hesitate to ask questions, many of which are tough or even impossible to answer definitively. There’s a lot of introspection and reflection woven in with the story as Michael grapples with everything from issues of morality to his and Hanna’s relationship.
Hanna and Michael come across as very real, flawed people. I didn’t love or hate either of them, but I felt for them. I had no answers to their questions, no solutions for the what-ifs, yet their story carried me along. The novel forces you to think alongside its characters, because it provides no answers either.
Overall, The Reader was not a book I adored. It is, however, a very real story, one that requires active participation. I would read it again just for the experience.
Readathon books I’ve reviewed so far:
Still to come:
- The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
- Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko (audiobook)
- Something Missing by Matthew Dicks