The Reader by Bernhard Schlink and Carol Brown Janeway

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The Reader by Bernhard Schlink and Carol Brown Janeway

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Will Putnam
Reviewed by Will Putnam
Summary: A wonderfully written love story about a friendship that lasts generations. Hard-hitting, insightful and full of twists.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: June 1998
Publisher: Phoenix
ISBN: 978-0753804704

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It's West Germany, 1958. A 15-year-old schoolboy, Michael Berg, is suffering a long bout of hepatitis. When he recovers he returns to the flat of a tram conductor, 36-year-old Hanna Schmitz, to thank her for taking care of him the day he fell sick. The two of them begin a secret affair that becomes a routine for months: after school and work, Michael would read to her, and then they would make love and bathe each other. Both of them fall in love.

Michael blames himself when he arrives at her place one day to find she has moved out her belongings and fled. He sees her several years later when he is a law student and soon realises why she kept so quiet about her past when he knew her. She is on trial for the atrocious acts she committed as an SS guard at Auschwitz. Michael desperately tries to reconcile his bygone love for her with the fact she is a criminal of the worst kind. The other women on trial try to place all the blame on her. Hanna could prove she was not in charge of the women and this would help her case enormously. However, her darkest secret stands in her way...

The story is fitting for Schlink to show the generation gap between those adults who fought in the war and their children who were born after it. He uses the student riots at that time as a basis for this conflict, and poses some moral and philosophical questions about the lost generation's guilt, or lack thereof, for the things they did in the war. I found these questions a very effective part of the book. At fewer than 300 pages long, it's a quick read, but still manages to keep you pondering its subject matter days after. This part of history is still fresh in our minds and as Michael notes, we owe it to the victims to never forget them.

What's so great about this book is Schlink's writing style. Carol Brown Janeway translates this minimalistic style into a thoroughly enjoyable read that suits The Reader because of the way Schlink attacks his raw themes head on. His attention to detail is where he excels, as the images that stay with you are those that mean a lot to Michael, such as the way Hanna pulls up her stocking or leans over. He also has Michael narrate the story as an older man looking back at his life, which is an interesting device given how much of the narrative is about reading and storytelling. Schlink offers up such a thought-provoking novel and it is no wonder that despite its length, it is one of the most acclaimed books about the Holocaust.

One thing I felt was a little on-the-nose was Schlink's depiction of Michael as a law student being reclusive, arrogant and cold. As a narrator he bemoans how history has created an overly cinematic perspective of concentration camps – it's a distorted perspective. And yet with young Michael, Schlink shows the world a narrator who fits in with the distorted perception that people have of Germans. Perhaps this was intentional... or perhaps through Michael's reclusiveness, he was showing the damaging effect that statutory rape has on young people. Neither is very clear.

The Reader as a whole is a bit depressing, so if you are looking for something to lift your spirits, this is not the right book for you. But I have always loved learning about history through the eyes of someone's personal perspective – it makes it much less about facts and figures, and much more interesting. If you are like me and prefer it that way, this novel will be right up your street.

Reading Suggestions: Fatherland by Robert Harris; Auslander by Paul Dowswell; The Cabinet of Curiosities by Paul Dowswell; The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust by Heather Pringle; Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut; The Spy Game by Georgina Harding; Afghan Silk by Julia Scott; Whitethorn by Bryce Courtenay; Day by A L Kennedy

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