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36 of 40 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing love story raises challenging issues, 26 May 2005
This review is from: The Reader (Paperback)
'The Reader' is the fictional memoir of Michael Berg, written straightforwardly in sparse, unemotional, highly readable language. The novel is simply yet effectively structured into three parts that progress chronologically. Broadly speaking, 'The Reader' opens with a beautifully told love story between the narrator, then aged fifteen, and a thirty-six year old female tram conductor, Hannah Schmitz. Michael attends Hanna's entire trial on war crime charges in Part II, whilst the final Part explores the aftermath of the trial for both Michael and Hanna.
In 'The Reader' legal and philosophical issues take centre stage. Schlink avoids making authorial judgments, opening up grey areas between the dichotomy of good and evil, and allowing readers full reign to ponder the various questions that are raised. Whilst Schlink's overall approach has much to recommend it, there is the danger that on key issues a range of interpretations could be taken and that 'The Reader' can be read as meaning all things to all readers.
The first issue raised in 'The Reader' concerns the appropriateness of Hanna and Michael's sexual relationship. Whilst it is impossible to comment accurately on the legality of their relationship in the hundred-and-ninety-odd countries of the world, particularly as some federated nations themselves consist of multiple criminal jurisdictions, it is suggested that their sexual relations would be illegal in many parts of the world and be subject to potentially heavy penalties. Hanna and Michael's relationship is portrayed simply as a love story through Part One, and it is entirely possible that Schlink - author, jurist and lawyer - is seeking to question sexual offences legislation in many parts of the world. Interestingly, this issue has received comparatively little attention in reviews of 'The Reader', arguably suggesting that existing criminal laws are out of step with the thoughts of the readership of this popular and critically-acclaimed novel. Despite the treatment of their relationship in Part One, there are nevertheless some indications in the novel that Michael's relationship with Hanna had negative effects on his emotional development, such as his estrangement from his family and peers, and his difficulties in forming stable relationships with women later in his life.
Secondly, the novel explores issues concerning the Holocaust, in particular the degree of Hanna's culpability for war crimes, and the attitudes of post-Nazi generations of Germans towards Germans, collectively and individually, that were adults during the Nazi era. In general terms, it is a strength of the book that Hanna gets a sympathetic airing of her wartime acts and omissions - largely because we see her through Michael's eyes and he remains in love with her. Schlink's successful examination of wartime issues can be seen as part of the process of Germany and Germans coming to terms with their past, although it has to be stressed that this has been happening for many years now in Germany. Indeed, Germany's recent sensitive handling of the sixtieth anniversaries of the liberation of a number of Nazi concentration camps, and the appointment of a German Archbishop to lead the global Catholic Church both suggest that the international community fully recognises Germany's atonement for its wartime acts.
Despite enjoying the storyline and treatment of issues in 'The Reader', a number of reservations exist. Firstly, whilst appreciating the generally sympathetic treatment accorded Hanna, she is never really given a voice to explain her actions - either in relation to her wartime activity or her relationship with Michael - and I thought this could have been achieved, either directly or indirectly, in Part Three. Secondly, I felt that characterisation development was sacrificed somewhat in order to make the story clear-cut and keep issues to the fore. Thirdly, I found a number of points of the plot fairly implausible, such as Hanna's illiteracy not being evident prior to the trial; Michael studying to become a lawyer; Michael chancing upon Hanna's trial and Hanna's lack of adequate legal representation given the gravity of the charges (consider, for example, the difficulty that Milosevic, a trained lawyer, had in dismissing his counsel).
The praise lavished upon this novel has been quite extraordinary - it's even a bit overwhelming and daunting to plough through selected comments on the way to page one! Whilst 'The Reader' may not fully meet all the hype, I would nevertheless heartily recommend it as an entertaining and thought-provoking look into contemporary attitudes to Germany's Nazi past. Furthermore, for those particularly interested in this issue, Gunter Grass's exceptional recent novel 'Crabwalk' would make a perfect companion novel to 'The Reader'.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 25 Feb 2009, 10:40:53 GMT
Elgar17 says:
Excellent review. I disagree that it is a flaw that Hanna is not given much of a voice though, for me that ambiguity was one of the strengths of the book. It could be argued that it is her very limited psychological landscape that enables her to behave as she does; after all, her answers at the trial are entirely honest, until her final false admission, and perhaps more of a window to her soul than the narrator would like to believe?

Posted on 23 Sep 2009, 09:55:24 BST
Yes, I think you have this right. This is a more accurate reading than the other reviews shown. I agree with most of the points you make about the book and the relationship.
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