The Reader [Bernhard Schlink]


Brew up for the jury.

In the first sentence of Goodreads’ description of ‘The Reader’, we’re promised that it is ‘a thrilling book’. That may be your opinion, Goodreads, but it certainly wasn’t mine. By rights, the subject matter alone should have made this book exciting and horrifying and gripping, but I was quite simply bored by it. It had been sitting on my shelf for ages and ages, after my flatmate at uni lent it to me and I never actually got round to starting it. I’ve since left uni and moved out of that flat, and really ought to return the book to its rightful owner (sorry, Heather!). Perhaps I was getting boredom-vibes from the book, and that’s why I pushed it further and further back in my to-read queue. But, after realising how silly my preconceptions could be upon reading and loving ‘I Capture The Castle’, I thought it was high time I just got on with it. A few weeks ago that is exactly what I did.

To summarize the plot, a fifteen year old boy named Michael begins a relationship on the down-low with an older woman named Hanna. She asks him to read to her during his visits, which is portrayed, at this point in the book, as being of the erotic quirks of this illicit romance. She disappears mysteriously after a few months, and the book then shifts in time to the point at which Michael is studying Law at university. He sits in on the trial of some Nazi war criminals, and – lo and behold – one of the defendants is Hanna. She ends up going to jail (which sounds like a mega spoiler but I promise that this fact isn’t the kicker – I’ll keep schtum where the big twist is concerned). Harking back to the days when Michael would read to Hanna, he proceeds to make tape recordings of him reading, and sends them to her right up until she is released, although he never actually sends a written response to any of the letters he receives from her.

Now for the interpretation bit. The strong overarching theme is that of guilt. Again, without wanting to reveal the main twist for those of you planning to read ‘The Reader’, Hanna holds a secret which she is so desperate to keep concealed that she ends up becoming embroiled in Nazi war crimes against the Jews without any real sense of agency; she’s swept along with everything for fear of social judgement if she takes a different path and gives herself away. Schlink clearly uses this to draw a parallel with German public during the war, to reflect the guilt of subsequent generations at their parents’ ‘involvement’ in the horrors of the Holocaust which resulted simply from not not getting involved, if that makes sense. I didn’t find ‘The Reader’ boring because I couldn’t derive any meaning from it, in the same way that I didn’t find its content boring and yet I was snoozing my way through its pages. As I said right at the beginning, by rights this ought to have been a good book. Unfortunately, in my opinion it just boils down to Schlink coming up with a good concept but then failing to pull it off.

*BrewAndBookBonus*: Only very tenuously related, but impossible for me to leave out, is Hugh Jackman’s opening number at the 2009 Oscars. The film version of ‘The Reader’ was nominated that year, and featured in Jackman’s musical rundown of the heavy-hitters. The following link starts at the relevant point for your convenience (you can’t say I don’t spoil you!), but I seriously recommend watching the whole thing. It is truly awesome. Enjoy!

Would recommend to:

As I’ve given this kind of a negative review, I’m not sure that it’s one I would really recommend. However, if you are really interested in the holocaust, in the ‘German guilt’ and atonement etc. and you will read anything you can lay your hands on about it, then perhaps give this a whirl.

I’ve finished this and want something similar:

‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan would be a good choice, I think.

What do you think?

Did you think more favourably of ‘The Reader’ than I did? Have you seen the film – if so, how was it? Or do you just love Hugh Jackman? Whatever’s on your mind (within reason guys, I don’t want my blog to get flagged up for XXX content) spill your guts to me in the comments below.

p.s. Sorry for my absence this week! Posting should go back to normal this coming week and thereafter. Until then, happy reading! x

Artwork Credit: Stanford Kay, who does lots of fab paintings of books! If you’re already here and reading this, then maybe you’ll like his stuff.


3 thoughts on “The Reader [Bernhard Schlink]

  1. I liked this book, but I think I read it at the right time. However, I could NOT get through Atonement and I think you’re right about them being similar. I still enjoyed your review though, so thank you. : )

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