The Reader is a slim little book that packs a big punch. Bernhard Schlink's meditation on guilt and accountability is set in post-World War 2 Germany, as a young man named Michael Berg embarks on a sexual affair with a mysterious, 30ish woman named Hanna who lives alone and works on a trolley. She is passionate but curiously withdrawn- and then one day she is simply gone. When she reappears, she is on trial for crimes Michael never could have imagined- and she has a secret.
Schlink doesn't shy away from showing the negative consequences of Michael and Hanna's relationship on the rest of his life- failed relationships with lovers and children, difficulties getting his career off the ground- which suggest something poisonous even before we know it for sure. Of course, a sexual relationship between an adult and a child is bound to produce negative consequences for the child but Schlink gave me the feeling that something more is at play, something about Hanna specifically that goes beyond the psychological dysfunction that would lead her to take advantage of a young boy. Neither character is exactly sympathetic, but I think the point is to create complex characters that defy easy categorization.
I found The Reader to be a challenging, moving book, filled with questions and ambiguity- moral ambiguity most of all. Schlink's theme is responsibility and choices- the responsibility of an individual or of a society for the choices it's made or allowed in its name, and the burden of guilt borne by the generation of Germans that both lived through the war and that which came after, for the Holocaust and for the Nazi regime in a broader sense. Schlink's literary style and first-person approach, so we see Michael's psyche at close range, produce an intimacy and immediacy allowing the reader to understand both Michael's perspective and its limitations. Definitely a tight, literary page-turner of psychological suspense, I'd recommend The Reader to anyone interested in a strong character-driven novel of ideas and morality. It's a book I won't soon forget.
P.S.: Candy at Not a Walking Encyclopedia tells me that there is a film adaptation of The Reader about to be released, starring Kate Winslet. I think I'll be there opening weekend! Thanks, Candy! And please go check out her terrific blog!
P.P.S. Lorri M. gave me the IMDB link for the film, out in limited release December 10 and in wide release January : http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0976051/. Thank you Lorri!
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.