The Reader (Review)

June 24, 2010

Book cover for "The Reader" by Bernhard Schlink.Title: The Reader

Author: Bernhard Schlink

Publication Year: 1998

Pages: 224

Genre: Fiction

Source: Audiobook borrowed from the Toronto Public Library system (narrated by Campbell Scott)

From the cover:

Hailed for its coiled eroticism and the moral claims it makes upon the reader, this mesmerizing novel is a story of love and secrets, horror and compassion, unfolding against the haunted landscape of postwar Germany.

When he falls ill on his way home from school, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover – then she inexplicably disappears. When Michael next sees her, he is a young law student, and she is on trial for a hideous crime. As he watches her refuse to defend her innocence, Michael gradually realizes that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.

When the movie version of The Reader came out, I heard rave reviews about both it and the book that it was based on, but somehow I never ended up seeing it nor found out the premise. I spotted the audiobook version at the library a couple weeks ago, and decided to borrow it after reading the cover.

I was pleasantly surprised by the method of storytelling that Schlink uses in this book. I had to remind myself that it was originally written in German, which meant that I was reading a translation – something that definitely has to be kept in mind when you’re thinking about the quality of the prose and the way that things are put together. The Reader reminded me what it is that I often like about “foreign” works: they’re not made of the same type of writing as that which is typically used by the books I usually read. There’s a particular feel to contemporary North American literature that is very distinct and yet hard to define, and there’s a certain comfort in it. There’s also a certain comfort in reading something that’s outside of that pattern – or, at least, a certain comfort in recognizing and enjoying the difference.

Even though The Reader primarily focuses on the relationship between Michael and Hanna, there is a very German feel to the book, and not just through the setting and the writing style. The politics of the book, the politics of post-WWII Germany, are exposed in a way that is very distinctive and characteristic of German works of art and particularly of writing. There’s a certain sense of intense regret, deep thought, and continuous apology to do with “the horrors” that Germans never really seem to get over, particularly when talking about the period in time surrounding WWII. Growing up, I read all kinds of books about Germany or written  by Germans, and they all had very real similarities in this regard. If you weren’t reading an apology for the Holocaust, you were reading an explanation as to why apologies are necessary, or a manifesto about why Germans in “regular society” feel so guilty, or other similar topics. It’s just the way it is.

The Reader took a slightly different approach to this, though also stayed the same in many ways. I liked the way that Schlink’s narrator was reflecting on his own experiences and thoughts, rather than focusing too much on external things that he wouldn’t really have known in as much detail. It made the story really interesting in its simplicity, because even though there weren’t all that many complicated plot points, the internal moral dilemmas that Michael experienced were more than enough to keep me interested.

This particular audio version was simple but good. The narrator’s voice was calm and sometimes felt even a bit detached, but that seemed to fit in well with the character’s state of mind. His voice was soothing enough that it felt good to listen, but not so soothing as to put me into a sleep-like state. It just seemed to work well enough so as not to detract from the reading experience.

I don’t want to say any more about The Reader, because I don’t want to give away too much. I’ll definitely say, though, that I think you should read it. It’s a really interesting character study into the emotions of two specific people and their relationship, while also fluidly intertwining this relationship with a discussion of post-WWII apologist German politics. It was an extremely interesting read, something that I just wanted to devour from cover to cover so that I wouldn’t have to leave the story or the characters for very long.

I don’t really know what else to say, except: The Reader was beautiful, start to finish. I hope that you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

Rating:

4 Comments

  • Iris June 25, 2010 at 6:15 am

    I haven’t read this yet, but like you I am curious since everyone seems to love the book and the movie. I haven’t seen the movie either, but that’s okay because I want to start with the book anyway.

  • zibilee June 25, 2010 at 10:25 am

    I read this book several years ago, and also saw the movie. It was very sad and also very complex at times. I don’t think it’s a book that I will ever quite forget, and I loved your excellent review. I am so glad that you loved the book!

  • Jen - Devourer of Books June 25, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    I have a copy of this but haven’t been very excited about getting to it, maybe I’ll try the audio.

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