Monday, May 16, 2011

Review: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

Before The Reader was released in film form, I had never heard of the book. I was actually given the movie as a gift at some point, but never got around to watching it. I saw it on the shelf at the Friends of the Library book sale and decided "what the heck".

On its surface The Reader is a very simple book. It is essentially a romance novel set against the post-WWII era in Germany. Michael Berg, a 15 year old boy, through a set of strange circumstances becomes lovers with Hanna Schmitz, a 36 year old single woman. Michael, being young and hopelessly naive, falls immediately in love with her, even believing that they would be married some day. Hanna is tender towards Michael, but is prone to extreme mood swings and is loath to share any information with him concerning her past. This torrid affair goes on for some time until Michael is sucked into the social life with people his own age and then one day Hanna just disappears. He blames himself for this at first, but then he gets on with his life.

Later, as a law student, he is part of a seminar which attends the trials of those indicted of charges of war crimes during WWII. One of these defendants happens to be Hanna. As an SS guard, she is being charged with the deaths of a number of Jewish prisoners during the retreat from the Soviet invasion. Michael's feelings for her, which have been quieted but never fully died away since her disappearance, come full to the forefront. He is forced to examine the shame he feels for having loved a war criminal and at the same time makes realizations of her odd past behavior based on things that emerge from the trial. I'm not going to continue with the plot because I don't want to spoil anything, but the last part of the book primarily focuses on Michael's reflection on his time with Hanna as a young man.

The Reader both explicitly and implicitly looks at the conflict between the adults that were alive during Nazi rule and the generation that follows after it. The shame that Michael feels concerning his brief affair with Hanna is analogous to the shame felt by the children of those adults complicit (or at least tacitly accepting) of the Nazi regime. His conflicted love of someone who committed atrocities reflects how difficult it was for this new generation to deal with their parents' "Holocaust Legacy". It is obvious that this is something Germans struggle with even today.

The writing was good, but didn't blow me away. Written in the first-person, The Reader mainly focuses on telling the story without bombast. This was quite a change of pace after finishing Orlando prior to this. It is definitely an easy read. You could probably finish this pretty easily over a weekend if you set aside some time.

What surprised me most about this novel is the lack of emotion involved. I expected a work heavily reliant on emotion (ala: Sophie's Choice), but received a sober, almost academic look at the themes above. For this reason, the two main characters never really seem human. Hanna, though emotionally unstable and a war criminal, is neither detestable or an object of sympathy. Perhaps the most appropriate feeling towards her is pity. Michael, after his affair as a young man, seems incapable of emotion or feeling. His sterile examination of how he feels during Hanna's trial is something that would be read out of a psychiatrist's patient notes. For the most part I didn't particularly care about how he felt, which worked out because he didn't seem to feel much.

Despite the character flaws, I thought this was a good novel. I won't say it was "enjoyable", but it was valuable. The soberness of the content is not light stuff. Would I recommend this? Yes, but you have to be in the mood for it. It is a serious book about a serious topic.

I'm going to give The Reader three and a half stars. It is very good without being great and is definitely worth a read.


Edit: Almost forgot; the next book up to bat is Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. I love Steinbeck, so this should be an enjoyable one.

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