The Reader – Bernhard Schlink Review

A powerful and intense tale of secrets and a hidden past, The Reader is a thrilling book. As a 15-year-old boy in postwar Germany, Michael Berg had a passionate affair with a mysterious, guarded woman twice his age that ended suddenly when she disappeared. Years later, Michael sees her again — when she is on trial for a terrible crime.

In The Reader, we see the world through the eyes of a man reflecting on his experiences in postwar Germany. Whether the Reader is a character in the novel or anyone who has had the experience of reading aloud, this is a bittersweet story of a boy who grows up at the age of fifteen. Though this book deals with taboo concepts, it is full of candor and entirely unapologetic.

Michael Berg, a young student, falls sick on his way home from school and is assisted by Hanna Schmitz, a woman old enough to be his mother. Almost immediately, he is captivated by her beauty, grace, and seductiveness. Before long, they become lovers and spend each day together. Their days are spent in a comfortable ritual of Michael reading aloud to Hanna, showering with her, making love to her, and lying by her side afterwards. For a while, Michael’s life is blissful, but eventually, he sees a fury in Hanna he never has before. Then, Hanna disappears. Michael believes this to be due to his betrayal. Years later, Michael sees Hanna again and realizes she is on trial for a gruesome crime. As he watches the trial take place, Michael realizes Hanna is hiding a bigger secret than anybody could have guessed.

Though this novel challenges the known ideas of the Holocaust, it forces us to see the other side of the spectrum. The novel is shaped to prove that there are shades of grey to every situation and a person can’t be judged, sentenced, and written off as easily as we believe. Throughout the novel, there are undercurrents of collective guilt and shame that the protagonist, Michael, is battling with. He feels an incessant need to condemn his parents for their turning a blind eye to the perpetrators in their midst. However, later on, it is obvious that Michael does not fully belong to the second generation since he is unable to condemn Hanna. He is still searching for answers through his numbness at what he has realized about her.

At the heart of this novel is the love that Michael feels for Hanna. Even though their relationship changes in many ways by the end of the novel, it is this alteration that shapes Michael. He is completely changed by the guilt that both Hanna and the first generation have left him with. Schlink manages to create a book that is gripping and leaves us with an unnerving look into the depths of Germany’s history.

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