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Book Review: "The Reader" by Bernhard Schlink

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The Reader first got to me through the movie adaptation. It was one of the first movies I had ever watched in English, and I was quite excited to have enough knowledge of the language to understand what was going on on the screen.

I cannot tell if it was the importance that moment had for me, Kate Winslet's amazing performance or the special place books are given in the plot, but the story touched me deeply.

The book came almost two years later, after looking for it everywhere in my very small town. I found a copy in a second-hand shop in the city after I moved for university, and only there could I enjoy it fully.

Let me give you a summary of the plot.

Michael Berg meets Hanna Schmitz for the first time in 1958 when he is fifteen years old. Michael is feeling sick and ends up sitting in the entryway of an apartment building. Hanna is just arriving home from work, and seeing the distressed boy, she helps him to go back home.

Three months pass, Michael has been recovering at home from hepatitis, and he tells her mother that the day he got ill, a woman helped him. So, he comes back to Hanna’s apartment to bring her some flowers as a way of thanking her. That day they begin a passionate affair.

This relationship has a peculiarity: Hanna insists on having Michael reading to her out loud every time they meet. She has a rather difficult temper, and Michael finds it hard sometimes to understand her sudden changes of mood.

After some months, and after an inconsequential fight, Hanna disappears.

Eight years later, Michael is a law student. He is witnessing a trial as part of a college seminar, and he is shocked to find out that Hanna is one of the defendants. She and five other women, that used to work as guards for the SS, are accused of letting three hundred women die inside of a burning church after the evacuation of a concentration camp.

Hanna's reappearance haunts Michael's life, and her strange behavior during the trial puzzles him.

Is she really guilty of that horrible crime? Does she understand what she has done? And if she does, how can he care about a person like her?

The young man will have to face his troubled feelings, and try to make sense of all the memories of the relationship that marked his life. And he will also discover Hanna's biggest secret.

At first, I wanted to write our story to be free of it. But the memories wouldn't come back for that. Then I realized our story was slipping away from me and I wanted to recapture it by writing, but that didn't coax up the memories either. For the last few years, I've left our story alone. I've made peace with it. And it came back, detail by detail and in such a fully rounded fashion, with its own direction and its own sense of competition, that it no longer makes me sad."

— Berhnard Schlink

Why should you be reading it?

This novel has many points that are worth analyzing.

In the first place, I find the story not only emotional but also defying when it comes to empathizing with the main characters, something I consider very interesting.

Hanna is not someone easy to like, most of her interactions with young Michael showing her as a rather cold woman. Some people find that what can be understood of the story is that being unable to read is more serious than being responsible for the death of hundreds of people, but it was not the writer's intention.

This fact makes Hanna, from my point of view, a much more complex character: We do not get to know if she is really that hard-hearted woman we believed her to be or someone who out of ignorance, could not comprehend the magnitude of her actions.

In one of the last chapters, when she and Michael meet after all those years, I think she shows, if not an affection towards him, at least a big gratefulness. Micheal asks her if she had thought about the past during her imprisonment, and she says she had not. But still, in her will, she insists on leaving her money to one of the survivors of the camps.

Learning to read changes her, and I think that part of this change radicates precisely in understanding what she has done.

But we cannot forget that Michael is the one telling the story and the one whose perspective we are seeing.

He tells the story as an adult, looking back on the summer romance, the trial, and the conviction of the woman he loved.

Michael has to deal with the pain he felt for that clandestine relationship, but also the guilt for not being able to look at Hanna with indifference. She is this woman being tried for murder, but also the woman that once was his whole world.

He writes the story to have closure.

During the weeks of the trial, I felt nothing [...] It was like a hand pinching an arm numbed by an injection. The arm doesn't register that it is being pinched by the hand, the hand register that it is pinching the arm, and at first the mind cannot tell the two of them apart. But a moment later it distinguishes them clearly. Perhaps the hand has pinched so hard that the flesh stays white for a while. Then the blood flows back and the spot regains color. But that does not bring back sensation."

— Bernhard Schlink

Guilt comes not only from caring deeply about someone who did something terrible but also from a generational place. The young condemning their elder for allowing the horrors to happen, and also for tolerating and accepting people who committed crimes into society after the war.

Being a law student, Michael cannot help to notice the need and the justice of condemning those people. But when he guesses Hanna's illiteracy, the turn the trial is taking does not seem completely just for all parties. Revealing the truth is not his responsibility, and still, he feels it weighing on him. It is not possible to save a person who does not want to be saved.

This love story, twisted and complicated as it can be, has tender moments, especially the ones when Micheal reads to Hanna. Even though the distance, and through the decades, books keep bringing them together and connecting them.

The Reader has also made me think a lot about what being able to read really means for a person. I have been a voracious reader all my life and I have always considered reading something as normal as walking or speaking.

Books have been my companions during some of the worst moments of my life. Most of my knowledge and understanding of the world has been given to me by all the reading I have done.

What if I could not read at all? I would certainly not be the person I am. That thought made me value my reading skills more than ever, and realize what a gift they are.

Even though illiteracy is not common nowadays, it still exists.

Apart from a feeling of shame, being unable to read makes you vulnerable in many other ways. Think of how Hanna was taken advantage of during the trial, for being unable to read the report and other documents and prepare a strategy.

So, if you wish to reflect on the power of the written word and the human ability to interpret it, or enjoy a bittersweet love story, The Reader might be the right book for you.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

If you liked my review on this book and are interested in purchasing it, you can do so at the link below

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