Book Review: The Reader by Bernard Schlink

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Blurb:

An exceptionally powerful novel exploring the themes of betrayal, guilt, and memory against the background of the Holocaust. An international bestseller.

For 15-year-old Michael Berg, a chance meeting with an older woman leads to far more than he ever imagined. The woman in question is Hanna, and before long they embark on a passionate, clandestine love affair which leaves Michael both euphoric and confused. For Hanna is not all she seems.

Years later, as a law student observing a trial in Germany, Michael is shocked to realize that the person in the dock is Hanna. The woman he had loved is a criminal. Much about her behavior during the trial does not make sense. But then suddenly, and terribly, it does – Hanna is not only obliged to answer for a horrible crime, she is also desperately concealing an even deeper secret.

Rating: 4 stars

My Review:

Our narrator Michael sets out to tell his own story starting right from the times when he was 15. He is a cautious man, shies away from difficult situations, and towards the end of it all, ends up being a loner. At 15, he meets the love of his life, Hanna – a tram conductor. In no time, they are in the thick of a passionate and clandestine affair. Their affair is laced with an unusual quirk of Hanna needing to be read to, a point that is discussed later on as well. Hanna being 36 at that time and Michael just 15 makes the reader wonder if this is child abuse! But we do none of that and devour all of this as a great piece of literature.

Unfortunately, Hanna disappears without a word. And the meet again when he is in law school and she is a defendant on trial, accused of letting women burn to death in a locked church during the end of the war. Michael learns of her horrifying past and wonders if there is anything else that she is hiding. Slowly, he discovers a truth about Hanna – that she cannot read or write. She is terribly ashamed of this and chooses to be acquitted rather than reveal it. And all Michael does is stand at the byline, watching!

Years later, Michael starts sending Hanna tapes with him reading out the likes of Homer and Checkov. Over time, he even reads out his own writings. Things take a turn for the better when he receives the first letter from Hanna, saying how much she liked the last tape which was in fact, his writing. Michael is happy to the core at this discovering Hanna had finally learned to read and write. What follows is a set of quick events bringing us to the end of this brilliantly written book.

The book is a journey into the depths of a personality, case, and effect and then into understanding at a deeply philosophical level. Through his life, Michael realizes how small Hanna was in the scheme of things; that she was just a pawn caught between war and peace, life and death, and above all, love and desertion. Michael to me was an epitome of betrayal who needed to make peace and his tapes were a means to absolving himself.

To me, it’s nothing less than a piece of art in all its entirety.

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