Written by: Bernhard Schlink
Translated from German by Carol Brown Janeway
Published By: Vintage International
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
How often is it that you find a dentist who shares similar tastes in music, movies and books? When I first met my dentist, Robin, we got off on the right foot immediately after she noticed the book I was reading – a Star Wars novel. We discovered we both shared a love for Star Wars and began chatting about other forms of entertainment. Each time I visit, Robin checks out whatever book I’m reading at the time and we discuss it…in between cleanings, that is. On my last visit, Robin recommended a novel she had recently read, telling me that it was so good she couldn’t put it down. Having no reason to doubt her advice, I quickly purchased a copy of The Reader.
In The Reader, Hanna Schmitz has dominated Michael Berg’s mind ever since the day she found him deathly ill in front of her apartment building and came to his rescue. Forced by his mother to return to Hanna’s building to thank her, he never expected that his chance encounter and an act of kindness would lead to a torrid and forbidden love affair. Hanna’s sudden disappearance comes as a shock to Michael, but no more so than their next encounter – in a courtroom where Hanna is standing trial for crimes allegedly committed by her while serving in the Nazi army.
As taken as Michael was with her when they first met, Michael becomes obsessed, needing to know every nuance of the trial, every testimony, all about the camps and the atrocities, everything. In doing so, Michael hopes to gain insight into the woman he realizes he never really knew. But when his obsession uncovers a startling revelation about Hanna, Michael is forced to make a decision that will affect both of their lives for years to come.
Robin was right – once I started The Reader, I couldn’t put it down until I had reached the final sentence of the novel. The writing is so captivating and the story so engrossing that you become mesmerized…so much so, in fact, that I finished reading the book in one day. For such a small novel – a mere 200 plus pages – there is so much to the story. The emotional rollercoaster that Michael goes through both as a teenager and as an adult is something we can both relate to and something to wonder at. The internal struggles of Michael and Hanna are incredibly intriguing. Once the secret is revealed, you find yourself in a conundrum – you want to dislike Hanna for what she has done to Michael and to others during the war. However, at the same time, you find yourself understanding her actions…which will sometimes become infuriating as you realize that you are somewhat absolving her of crimes you acknowledge she has committed however understanding the reasons may be behind it all.
At some point while reading this novel, I began to feel that this was not simply a story – it all felt so real to me. The descriptiveness of the author coupled with the emotions and internal struggles that we all can relate to elevate the story somehow to something more than mere fiction. You begin to believe that maybe this story was true…that maybe there was a Hanna and Michael out there somewhere, despite the “Fiction” stamp and the disclaimer about everything within this novel being a figment of the author’s imagination. It simply all seems too real to the person reading the novel and perhaps that is what makes The Reader so captivating.
Since this novel was recommended to me, a movie based on the novel has made its way to theaters. The movie stars Kate Winslet as Hanna and Ralph Fiennes as an adult Michael (interesting when you consider that Fiennes played the ultimate in evil Nazis in the movie Schindler’s List). Having read this novel as quickly as I did, and having enjoyed it so much, I can’t wait to see the film. I only hope that the movie version of The Reader can measure up to the incredible novel.