The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
Published in 1995
My copy: Library book
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 behaviour 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.
This novel has been on my wishlist for ages as it often crops up on “must read” lists, so when I spotted it in my local library I decided it was time to give it a go. I assumed it would be quite a heavy read, but actually I found myself whizzing through it, and polished it off in just a day.
It is very much a novel of two halves – the first detailing the affair between 36-year-old tram conductor Hanna, and 15-year-old Michael (or ‘kid’ as Hanna calls him, slightly disturbingly). This section is interesting and easy to read – although I never quite understood what Hanna saw in Michael or what her attraction to him was, and I wondered if this would become clear later in the book.
We then jump forward seven or so years, and Michael finds himself in a courtroom as an observer where Hanna is giving evidence, defending herself against crimes committed during the Holocaust. The tone of the novel changes dramatically at this point, and it almost feels like a different novel at times. I found the transition between the two parts of the novel was a bit abrupt, and I struggled to get into part 2 of the book, as it was more about Michael’s ideas and theories than what was actually happening in the courtroom.
The book then jumps again, and before I knew it, it was over.
I felt a bit indifferent about the book once I’d finished it, if I am honest. Although I enjoyed the first part, the rest seemed really rushed, and I felt that I never got a sense of who Hanna was as a person, or what motivated her. I actually quite liked the ending, which tied things up nicely and felt right somehow, but it was the courtroom section that didn’t really work for me. The characters were never very well fleshed out and I finished wondering what all the hype was about.