Friday, November 28, 2008

REVIEW: The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink. Published 1997, 1st Vintage International Edition. Literary Fiction. Translated from the German.
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 She is passionate but curiously withdrawn- and then one day she is simply gone.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!

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

14 comments:

bermudaonion said...

Wow! That sounds good.

Lenore said...

I'm looking forward to the movie with Kate Winslet - and I like to read the book first, so I should probably try to get a copy of this soon. Great review!

Serena said...

This sounds like a great book for an upcoming project Anna and I are working on...oops did I give away too much...don't tell Anna...she may kill me.

kalea_kane said...

OOOOOH That sounds amazing! I'm going to have to look for this one.

Julie said...

Sounds great!
By the way, I have an award for your blog, come check it out...
http://julyso4463.blogspot.com/

Anna said...

Great review. This one is definitely going on my list!

And don't worry, Serena, I won't kill you! LOL

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

Charley said...

I just reviewed this book, too. I thought it was quite lovely, and very sad. I like your "curiously withdrawn" description for Hanna. I'm looking forward to seeing the film.

Shana said...

Marie, I read this book earlier this year (pre-blogging days) and really enjoyed it. I've read mixed reviews though. I'm glad you liked it. Your review was spot on in terms of how I felt about it.

Shana
Literarily

candyschultz said...

Damn, you had me at post WWII Germany and I don't need any more books. WWII and The Holocaust are obsessions with me. If you are interested in another really good book around this period, fiction, I recommend The Visible World by Mark Slouka. It was devastatingly good. And now I am off to Amazon.

candyschultz said...

Having been to Amazon it appears there is a film either out already or coming out this year with Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes.

Lorri said...

Yes, there is a soon to be released film, based on the book. It will be in limited US release on Dec. 10th, and officially opens Jan. 9th. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0976051/

Your review is excellent!

Marie said...

Lorri, thank you and thanks for the link! :)

jenclair said...

I read this when it first came out and was blown away. Such a short book, such a big impact. My copy went to my daughter who felt the same way and passed it on. May still be circulating somewhere...

Lo said...

Any time, Marie! :)

~~Lorri