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a book review: the reader


i'm not sure how i ended up with a copy of bernhard schlink's "the reader" on my shelf, but there it was, and, looking for something to read this weekend, i picked it up and read it.  in one 24 hour period.

it's not that it is that gripping, but that it is indeed that short.  i don't know what the official literary distinction is between a novel and a short story, but this must be near the boundary lands.

however, just because it is short doesn't mean it doesn't pack a punch.  it does.  and, in my opinion, it lands said punch right to the gut with powerful force.

i knew nothing about this book going into it, but i must offer full disclosure at this point that the first part of the book details a love affair between a 37-year old woman and a 15-year boy.  while it is certainly consensual, the law doesn't allow for consensual sex with a 15-year old, and so it should be clear that this is an illegal act, and that sexual abuse, in any of its many forms, is always terribly damaging and wrong.

that being said, literature has the unique opportunity to disentangle itself from things like laws in order to capture a particular moment, a particular life, and a particular story.  that isn't to say that the book is without morals.  on the contrary, morality is one of the main themes of the book, particularly as it is manifested in guilt; personal guilt, relational guilt, and national guilt.

the book is divided into three parts: first, michael (15) and and hanna's (37) initial relationship in germany; second, michael's time in law school, observing a trial in which hanna is a defendant; and third, michael's years as a law scholar, and his struggles with guilt (i have deliberately not given away the great secret of the book here, so you'll have to read for yourself to discover the twist).

in the second part of the book we discover that hanna had been involved in some terrible atrocities at concentration camps during the holocaust.  as she is being questioned by a judge about what she did and did not do, she asks a poignant question; a question, which, for me, seemed to be the echoing point of the book: what would you have done?

the book forces us to ask that question.  to germans, blaming their parents for the holocaust, it forces them to ask themselves, "what would you have done?"  to us, hiding our own dirty secrets from one another, it asks, in the midst of our guilt, "what would you have done?"

because of this enduring question, and it's handling of the idea of guilt, i rather liked this book, but i won't say that i loved it, or couldn't put it down.  i also don't think i'll ever read it again.  it is written in an easy-to-read way (other than some of the law portions, which, at least for me, dragged a bit), and is so very brief.  in the end, i give it 4 stars.  i think it is worth the read to help the reader ask some important questions about morality and guilt.  and, at a less meaningful but more accessible level, it promotes this wonderful love of reading, which is contagious and satisfying to me, the reader.

Comments

peggy said…
I read the book with a book club about 12 years ago. Though a short story with some difficult subject matter, parts of the story stuck with me for a long time after. I haven't thought about it for years until I read your review .. I enjoyed your observations. One part of the book that really touched me was near the end when Michael saw Hanna again for the first time in so many years. When people age together in loving, functional relationships sometimes it's as if nothing has changed. When Michael saw Hanna at the end, he just saw an old lady. Was this closure? Or more pain? “Desires, memories, fears, passions form labyrinths in which we lose and find and then lose ourselves again.”

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