The ReaderTitle : The Reader

Author : Bernhard Schlink

ISBN-10: 9780375707971

ISBN-13 : 978-0375707971

Paperback : 218 pages

The Plot :

‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink is a story about the difficulties faced by the post-war generations of Germany with comprehending and dealing with the Holocaust. The book is written in three parts, each narrated by the main character Michael Berg.

The story begins in 1958, when Michael is a 15 year old boy living in Germany. One particular day has he is returning home after school he becomes ill outside the house of a 30 something year old lady named Hanna Schmitz. She finds him puking outside her house, helps him regain composure and walks him back home. He spends many months after that incident battling hepatitis and recuperating at home. Soon he visits Hanna to thank her for all her help and finds himself drawn to her. She catches him looking at her get dressed and he runs away in embarrassment, only to return a couple of days later. She seduces him and he returns regularly to her apartment where they begin a heated affair.

During their afternoon trysts, they develop a ritual, where Michael reads aloud to her, from the books he has been reading for School. He reads to her in multiple languages and books from classical literature. Michael wants to get close to Hanna emotionally as well but she keeps him at a distance. He realizes that he is falling in love with her and puts up with verbal and sometimes physical abuse from her. He takes a trip with her and brings her to his house when his parents are away to try and include her in his life but she chooses to maintain a distance.

Slowly Michaels begins to realise that he longs to hang out with his friends from school more than his desire to spend time with Hanna. He feels guilty about it but none the less, starts spending more time with his classmates and reduces his time with Hanna. Months later, one day he finds that Hanna has left suddenly and without a trace. He blames himself and is convinced that her departure had something to do with his changing behaviour toward her.

Part two of the book moves ahead to a time when Michael is a student at Law School, where he is part of a group of students who are observing a ‘war crimes’ trial. The trial involves a group of women who served as SS guards at Auschwitz. They are being tried for allowing 300 plus Jewish women under their command to burn alive while being trapped in a burning church. One of the women accused is Hanna and Michael recognises her immediately.

He feels guilty for having loved a remorseless criminal and at the same time is mystified at Hanna’s willingness to accept full responsibility for supervising the other guards despite evidence proving otherwise. She is accused of writing the account of the fire. At first she denies this, but then in panic admits it in order to not have to give a sample of her handwriting. Michael, horrified, realizes that Hanna has a secret she refuses to reveal at any cost—she is illiterate.

During the trial, it transpires that she took in the weak, sickly women and had them read to her before they were sent to the gas chambers. Michael decides she wanted to make their last days bearable; or did she send them to their death so they would not reveal her secret? She is convicted and sentenced to life in prison. After much deliberation, he chooses not to reveal her secret.

Years later we see that Michael is still trying to come to terms with his feelings for Hanna, and begins taping readings of books and sending them to her without any correspondence while she is in prison. Years have passed, Michael is divorced and has a daughter from his brief marriage. Hanna begins to teach herself to read, and then write, by borrowing the books from the prison library and following the tapes along in the text. She writes to Michael, but he cannot bring himself to reply. After 18 years, Hanna is about to be released, so he agrees after much hesitation to find her a place to stay and employment, visiting her in prison. But Hanna has different plans in mind.

Beautifully written, this book has become one of my favourites. The story is sad and introspective in nature, but makes for an amazing read. My favourite thing about the book is how the character of Hanna is portrayed so beautifully. She is shown as so strong and independent yet with a weakness and totally dependent on people. Overall I loved this book and highly recommend it.


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