The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
I’d been wanting to read this book for a few years. My frantic search through Dymocks for a good book to read on the train led me to the final copy in-store. I’m glad it did, the book isn’t a difficult read but it is difficult to draw yourself out of the world once within. It is the story of 15 year old Michael and 36 year old Hanna embarking on a highly charged affair. The age difference isn’t dwelt upon, however it does become the perceived cause of separation. The affair becomes Michael’s shadow, hovering over his relationships for the rest of his life. Michael is part of the generation that came after the Holocaust; Hanna one of the many who were alive during.
They relationship and personalities become a wider metaphor for each generations accountability towards what happened – who were the perpetrators, where is blame placed. The novel is divided in three parts, their meeting and affair, followed by their second meeting some 10 years after the affair when Hannah is on trial for war crimes and Michael is a law student observing her trial. The third part is set in Michael’s adulthood in the years Hanna is serving out her sentence. Hanna is a complex character and seeing her only through Michael’s eyes was difficult, her story is told through his perspective which bothered me. She is never able to express her opinion except when we hear who she allows to hold her accountable for her actions and we are never given an insight into her internal monologue.
Hanna’s character represents many individuals who partook in the Holocaust, she is illiterate in the story and I see this is an injustice to the generation. While the author may be trying to comment on their inability to read signs of where the society at large was headed; using her illiteracy as the shameful secret she attempts to hide doesn’t ring true for the novel, for me. Michael on the other hand struck me as an angry character, too self involved to see the external world objectively. All of his observations and monologue have a grey tinge to them and his attitude bothered me for a few different reasons. He refuses to find positivity in anything after Hanna, his aims and goals in life become incredible basic and he strives to isolate himself from people deliberately. It’s disturbing to read from a character so engulfed by his angry emotions. I suppose it’s a recommendation that despite two difficult characters on the pages, I finished the book and thoroughly enjoyed what I read, to my surprise.
Enjoyed perhaps isn’t the right word, ‘was immersed in’ is better, and the fact that I have been thinking about the characters since I closed the book is a further recommendation, it is most certainly a book that will be hard to forget or not mention in ‘what to read next’ conversations.
Overall, the book is a great read if you enjoy texts relating to the aftermath of the Holocaust, the perspective of Michael is certainly unique and parts two and three focus entirely on accountability; part one consists of the affair and our first impressions of Hanna. I enjoy texts relating to WWII and its aftermath hence I had a fair bit of knowledge regarding the issues the characters come across – don’t let that daunt you if history isn’t your cup of tea.
The book is a fantastic read if you enjoy any of the following and they are not in any way codependent: history, relationships, generational conflict, the Holocaust, WWII aftermath and or well written books that will stay with you long after you’re done with them.