The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

Schlink writes with an insight and beauty that most other writers long to achieve. A remarkable novel.

What would you do if you had fallen in love with someone who by societies standards should not be loved? How should a second generation of German’s deal with the atrocities that their peers committed during WW2? Bernhard Schlink  bravely explores all of these ideas and the reward is breathtaking.

The novel begins in 1958 in West Germany. 15 Year old Michael abruptly takes ill in the street, seeking refuge he finds himself in the doorway of a block of flats; too ill to move. He is discovered by a lady, Hanna, who is returning home from work to her apartment, she kindly allows him into her house so that he can recuperate and rest until he is well enough to return home. It isn’t until he is fully recovered and he has revealed to his mother the caring stranger who welcomed him into her home that he meets Hanna again, upon his mothers assistance that he must thank her.

It’s here that Schlink portrays with eloquent prose a powerful and daring visualisation of a young boy on the cusp of manhood, aroused by the simple yet erotic image of Hanna placing on her stockings. It is with insurmountable talent that he is able to portray a scene that could, in other hands, be perceived as tacky and crude. But in the skilled hands and beautiful words of Schlink a deep and acute understanding of desire is achieved; his writing dazzles in it’s grasps of the sporadic and unpredictable pulls of desire. He encapsulates perfectly Michael’s innocence and the step he takes into a new voyage of emotions within his life. It is from here that an illicit affair quietly erupts between the two.

After the first few months of their affair Michael comes to quickly realise the deep complexities of love. He learns how sometimes we will do anything for love but also how as a young boy, to be in love with an older woman, he may miss out on some of the essential moments of his teenage years. Schlink evokes brilliantly the acute and aching pains of first love; that this all centres round such an unusual and taboo affair only adds to the captivating spirit of the novel.

However before Michael is forced to make a decision between childhood and Hanna, she suddenly and gut wrenchingly leaves. When Michael attempts to track her down he is told by her manager that she has left town. Michael is abandoned, distraught and left bereft. His own sense of loss and grief subtly embedding itself within the novel.

It isn’t until years later when Michael, clearly affected by the consequences of being a part of such an atypical relationship, comes across Hanna. He is studying law at university and seems to have slipped into a state of apathy, numb to the life and energy that surrounds him. But when his university class begin to study and debate the Nazi crimes offences that occurred during the war his passion and enthusiasm is once again ignited. As part of his studies his class are invited to attend the trial of a group of female Nazi prison guards who served during the war; but Hanna is one of the women on trial.

The memento of the novel seems to pick up as the emotional struggle of Michael is injected further into the story. An urgent and distressing battle seems to take place within Michael’s mind as he struggles with the moral implications of having loved a suspected Nazi, of being faced again with the woman who has shaped the man he became. How can he condemn her as he should without implicating himself within her cruelty. And how can he forgive her in order to forgive himself.

Michael like the rest of his generation also struggles to try and make sense of these heinous crimes that his parents and loved ones must surely be punished for even if their participation was simple because of their in action. B encapsulates the struggling moral dilemma in a way that many other writers of this subject have struggled to do. He sheds light on a new and different consequence of the Nazi’s action; one that affects his on people.

Michael must also watch as Hanna seems to constantly trip herself up and hang herself out to dry as the main perpetrator of these crimes. Yet it is clear to Michael that she is not solely guilty and instead covering up some secret. A secret he will realise that he was once complicit in. And it is here that an element of mystery is slowly and tantalisingly unveiled revealing a side to Hanna that allows the reader to make greater sense of her complex character. It is true that as a reader I struggled in coming to terms with Hanna from many perspectives. At times she can be cruel and domineering, at others tender and kind. At other times she is simply hard to figure out and left me questioning her morals and indeed my own preconception of such a taboo love. But what is revealed towards the end of the story allows the reader, like Michael, to see the final side of her that until now has being shroud in ambiguity.

The ending in particular left me with lots to muse over. Bernhard does not impose his opinions upon his audience, like Michael we are left to wonder at the dangers of simply condemning or categorising acts into right or wrongs. Just as Michael must learn his own way of coping and making sense of his love for Hanna, we must make our own decisions about what is morally correct, who can and can’t love who and how much another persons acts can implicate the people around them.

Have you read the reader or indeed anything else by Bernhard Schlink? Did you enjoy the book, are there any other books that touch on similar themes that you prefer, would recommend or can compare it to? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

8/10

Reading through July

Can you believe it? Another month has flown by and now it’s August, where does the time go? I hope that for all of you, like me it was a  wonderful month of reading filled with lots of fantastic reads. Firstly I must apologise that my blog has been a little sparse this month which was down to a very big schedule and not much blogging time. Despite a hectic month though I did manage to read some amazing books and this month you can expect my usual influx of posts.

But back to reading, I started off the month reading The God of Small things which I’m yet to review as this is part of a book group that I’m hosting. Were all meeting tonight to dissect and explore this book and I can’t wait to report back to on what’s sure to be a diverse mix of opinions. This book in particular seems to have split the group somewhat and I’m excited to see what everyone else thought of it. Has anyone else read this book, what were your thoughts?

Secondly I read what shaped up to be by far the best book of the month; The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly. If you’ve read my review then you’ll probably see that I was quite bowled over by the book which for me had just the right mix of intrigue and mystery and I was literally glued to this book. I can’t wait to read another book by Kelly. Has anyone read her latest novel, The Sick Rose, and if so would you recommend it?

Next up I read The Reader by Bernhard Schlink which has been on my TBR list for years and yet I’ve never got round to it. The book made a refreshing change from my current reading habits and whilst the story was at times hard to digest it made for a thrilling, real and touching story. Schlink has a style and way of writing that is at once simple and at the same time complex and rich. This is my first book by this author but certainly not the last. My review of this is scheduled to run very soon.

And lastly I tried When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson, which is part of the Jackson Brodie series. The only other book that I’d read by Kate Atkinson is Behind the scenes at the museum and I loved that book. Anyone familiar with the Brodie series will know that this book is slightly different in style, nonetheless it made for an enjoyable and I’ll let you know my thoughts on it soon.

So that was July and what a fun month of reading it was. I had some Post war German literature, a crime thriller, a booker prize winner and well the Poisson Tree which I really don’t feel I can categorize but I must say it was the cherry on the top of a great reading month.

So what about August? Well I have no firm reading plans just yet, although I do have a bedroom overflowing with books that need to be read so I shouldn’t be short of material. I also plan to read Before I go To sleep by S J Watson which has had me intrigued for long enough now.

So what about everyone else? What great reads did you discover this month? Any books you read and would recommend? And what do you have planned for August? As always I would love to hear all your thoughts…happy reading