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Customer Review

117 of 131 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars COMPELLING...COMPLEX...PROFOUND..., 5 July 2004
This review is from: The Reader (Paperback)
Winner of the Boston Review's Fisk Fiction Prize, this thematically complex story is written in clear, simple, lucid prose. It is a straightforward telling of an encounter that was to mark fifteen year old Michael Berg for life. The book, written as if it were a memoir, is divided into three parts. The first part of the book deals with that encounter.
While on his way home from school one day in post-war Germany, Michael becomes ill. He is aided by a beautiful and buxom, thirty six year old blonde named Hanna Schmitz. When he recovers from his illness, he goes to Frau Schmitz's home to thank her and eventually finds himself seduced by her and engaged in a sexual encounter. They become lovers for a period of time, and a component of their relationship was that Michael would read aloud to her. Michael romanticizes their affair, which is a cornerstone of his young life. They even go away on a trip together. Then, one day, as suddenly as she appeared in his life, she disappears, having inexplicably moved with no forwarding address.
The second part of the book deals with Michael's chance encounter with Hanna again. He is now a law student in a seminar that is focused on Germany's Nazi past and the related war trials. The students are young and eager to condemn all who, after the end of the war, had tolerated the Nazis in their midst. Even Michael's parents do not escape his personal condemnation. The seminar is to be an exploration of the collective guilt of the German people, and Michael embraces the opportunity, as do others of his generation, to philosophically condemn the older generation for having sat silently by. Then, he is assigned to take notes on a trial of some camp guards.
To his total amazement, one of the accused is Hanna, his Hanna. He stoically remains throughout the trial, realizing as he hears the evidence that she is refusing to divulge the one piece of evidence that could possibly absolve her or, at least, mitigate her complicity in the crimes with which she is charged. It is as if she considers her secret, that of her inability to read and write, more shameful than that of which she is accused. Yet, Michael, too, remains mute on the fact that would throw her legal, if not her moral, guilt into question. Consequently, Hanna finds herself bearing the legal guilt of all those involved in the crime of which she is accused and is condemned accordingly.
The third part of the book is really the way Michael deals with having found Hanna, again. He removes himself from further demonstration and discussion on the issue of Germany's Nazi past. It affects his decisions as to his career in the law, eventually choosing a legal career that is isolating. He marries and has a child but finds that he cannot be free of Hanna. He cannot be free of the pain of having loved Hanna. It is as if Hanna has marked him for life. He divorces and never remarries. It is as if he cannot love another, as he loved Hanna. Michael then reaches out to Hanna in prison, indirectly, through the secret they share of what she seems to be most ashamed. Yet, he carefully never personalizes the contact. The end, when it comes, is almost anti-climatic.
The relationship between Michael and Hanna really seems to be analogous to the relationship between the generations of Germans in post-war Germany. The affair between Michael and Hanna is representational of the affair that Germany had with the Nazi movement. The eroticism of the book is a necessary component for the collective guilt and shame that the Germans bear for the Holocaust, as well as for the moral divide that seemingly exists between the generations. Yet, the book also shows that such is not always a black and white issue, that there are sometimes gray areas when one discusses one's actions in the context of the forces of good and evil. There is also the issue of legal and moral responsibility. One would think that the two are synonymous, but they are not always so. It also philosophizes on the ability to love another/a nation who/that was complicit in war crimes. This is an insightful, allegorical book that defies categorizing. It is also a book that is a wonderful selection for a reading circle, as it has a wealth of issues that are ripe for discussion. This is simply a superlative book. Bravo!
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Showing 1-10 of 10 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 25 Jan 2009 11:25:56 GMT
I found this review to be a lesson. Would that my teachers had been so brilliant at communicating. Whoever wrote this review handed me a key to "The Reader" which completely altered my understanding and enjoyment of it. It is a pity that publishers do not include this kind of insightful summation as standard in all new publications. Anything which increases our understanding of literature should be encouraged. I hope that Lawyeraau establishes a web site full of reviews of this calibre. This would give people like myself who were never top of the class, the impetus to try more complex reading. Hope Lawyeraau also establishes a parallel site which gives similar reviews and analyses of classical music. God bless her or him.
Gerald, Glasgow

Posted on 29 Jan 2009 10:48:10 GMT
I saw the film yesterday - beautifully photographed, and Winslet utterly convincing & moving. Now I must read the book.

Posted on 25 Feb 2009 22:53:46 GMT
Mrs. Me Fell says:
Georgie Fell says
This was such a wonderful review that I copied it for other members of my book club.

Posted on 20 Jun 2009 16:47:36 BDT
The initial Amazon review didn't do much for me, I almost closed the page, but having read this review, I may consider reading 'The Reader', it sounds wonderful. Thank you for the insightful review.

Posted on 23 Sep 2009 09:49:24 BDT
I think you miss a lot in this book and use terms in a rather unhelpful and inaccurate way For example, the term "buxom" is not used and suggests something quite different to the way Michael saw Hanna. He describes hwo he sees her at one point as strong, and "like a horse" on one occasion. I never saw a "buxom horse". He doesn't "romanticise" her. As it is told he has a deeply felt and long-lasting, very physical relationship with Hanna. The story doesn't suggest she seduces him. That would make her guilty of some kind of abuse. Legally she was, but that's not at all how it is presented in the text. There's similarly nothing in the text to suggest the story is intended in any "allegorical" sense. I cannot even see how this is really an exploration of the guilt of the German people, or "a Holocaust novel" except incidentally. It is about guilt and shame, and mainly about love and how relationships in adolescence are sometimes very hard to get over.
As criticisms of the novel, which incidentally I really liked, I find some aspects a bit incredible. How could Hanna could be so strong and assertive, with a developed personality (a character very unlike in the film), and yet so inadequate in the trial. How could her relationship with Michael be so deeply felt and so sexually complete? She was 36 and he was 15! How long did it actually last? Though this is problematic. At times it is suggested it was a long time, and at times it clearly wasn't. How did he manage to keep it so completely from his family and friends? etc.

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Sep 2009 05:32:48 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 20 Oct 2009 02:02:15 BDT]

In reply to an earlier post on 6 Nov 2009 21:01:35 GMT
heyjude says:
funnily enough I had written earlier this evening and before reading the review, that the narrator and his long relationship with Hanna is allegorical for the people involved in the holocaust, who, like Hanna, also did nothing.

Posted on 19 Jan 2010 01:00:48 GMT
Last edited by the author on 19 Jan 2010 01:10:53 GMT
Mrs. A. Kane says:
I agree with George Taylor and i think you should read this book again, at no time does hanna show any signs of guilt , infact the complete opposite in the fact that she had a job to do and she did it to her best ability. you say
"To his total amazement, one of the accused is Hanna, his Hanna. He stoically remains throughout the trial, realizing as he hears the evidence that she is refusing to divulge the one piece of evidence that could possibly absolve her or, at least, mitigate her complicity in the crimes with which she is charged. It is as if she considers her secret, that of her inability to read and write, more shameful than that of which she is accused. Yet, Michael, too, remains mute on the fact that would throw her legal, if not her moral, guilt into question. Consequently, Hanna finds herself bearing the legal guilt of all those involved in the crime of which she is accused and is condemned accordingly".
but what you fail to take into consideration is that maybe she knew what she was doing and she was not going to use the fact that she could not read nor write as an excuse for her actions.
"He stoically remains throughout the trial" infact he does not and leaves the court room on numerous times to cotemplate what he has heard
This book does have flaws and lots of them , but thats the beauty of this book that in its flaws it leaves holes that the reader can decide for themselves the outcomes and reasons for their behaviour
Please Ms C Boyle if it takes someone else's opinion of a book for you to understand and enjoy a book maybe you are missing the whole point of these type of books,
and what would the point be in reading a book if the first chapter was from the publisher telling you this is how you should understand and enjoy a book. books are for a person to use their own imagination. if you want an altered understanding of a book buy the DVD which in the case of this book left out important parts of the book.
I beleive that the Layweraau only speed reads a book and does not enjoy or take the time to understand a book, ie on the 6 of october he submitted 21 book reviews in one day

In reply to an earlier post on 3 Feb 2010 12:53:20 GMT
David says:
Sorry - I think you have missed the point of both the novel and the review.

Posted on 3 Feb 2010 12:55:54 GMT
David says:
A thoughtful and intelligent review which gets to the heart of many of the issues raised in the novel. It is a novel which raises more questions than it is able to answer, and points out the ambiguities and dualism which are present in all of us.
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