While on his way home from school, 15-year old Michael Berg falls ill. Sick with hepatitis, he is found by a kind stranger who cares for him then walks him home. His benefactor is 36-year old Hanna Schmitz and that chance encounter sets in motion a series of events that eventually leads to their unlikely and indecent love affair. Throughout their relationship, Hanna is secretive and keeps her past private. All Michael knows is that she grew up in a German community in Rumania, served in the army at 21, and held various jobs following the end of the war. Hanna’s silence is off-putting yet intriguing, and the mystery surrounding her only increases with her abrupt disappearance from their town and his life. Years later, all of Michael’s unanswered questions about Hanna’s past are revealed when he sees her in a courtroom standing trial. Hanna’s shrouded past is a secret no longer.
The Reader is divided into three parts: the first deals with Michael and Hanna’s meeting and growing relationship while the second and third focus on Hanna’s trial and the events following her verdict. The latter two parts deal with weightier issues and make for a more interesting and faster-paced story. Early on, Hanna is portrayed as a detached lover actively avoiding any kind of emotional commitment. She has no need for our sympathy and we, the reader, duly deny her of it. However, as Schlink sheds light on Hanna’s past and we begin to fully understand her moral makeup, our apathy slowly and willingly gives way to pity. The author doesn’t allow our feelings to develop much further beyond this given Hanna’s tragic and unsympathetic backstory. At this point, most authors would attempt to force a more intimate connection with one of his main characters, but Schlink seems satisfied in allowing us to remain unemotional bystanders and we do so without guilt or regret.
Bernhard Schlink gives us an unforgettable story of love, betrayal, secrets, and sacrifices. What surprised and impressed me most about this novel is the number of thought-provoking and provocative questions he poses: Is being right or honest worth the price of freedom? Can you recognize atonement without granting absolution? Is it ever too late to change? Questions such as these not only offer us a more in-depth view into Michael’s internal thoughts and struggles, but they also force us to examine our own moral convictions. The Reader is one of those rare books that not only entertains and educates, but also challenges the way we think and feel while encouraging us to be better versions of ourselves.
*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com