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.