A haunting examination of compassion and condemnation
The Reader is a justifiably renowned and widely taught novel which, in a departure from the traditional Holocaust genre, is a delicate and philosophical rumination on the nature of right and wrong.
The story, set in Germany, spans four decades; beginning in the 1950s when the protagonist Michael Berg is a teenager and ending in the 1990s when he is middle aged. In this way, the novel is also a coming of age story as well as having a grand scope and perspective.
A love affair is at the heart of this novel, and it begins when fifteen year old Michael falls ill on his way home from school and is helped by Hanna Schmitz, a beguiling woman in her thirties. Michael, once he has recovered, revisits Hanna at her home and the two begin a complex yet tender relationship which lasts all summer. Each day, they make love and afterwards Michael reads aloud to Hanna. There is real beauty in their love affair and Schlink has created highly believable, flawed characters which you are implored to care about.
There is a deep vein of philosophical thought running through The Reader, yet the narrative is brisk, the language is clean and there is a sense that the best way to read this novel would be in one intense sitting.
As the story progresses, Michael attends law school and is witness to a war crime trial in which he discovers Hanna once worked as a guard in a concentration camp, and participated in the horrors of the Holocaust. Michael is then faced with a complex moral challenge in which he must navigate his own sense of justice and morality as well as possessing a secret which could change everything…
The brilliance of The Reader is in its ambiguity; it actively causes you to reflect on what form of justice you subscribe to and how you conceptualise evil acts and the people who perform them. Schlink has disregarded the traditional portrayal of a Holocaust perpetrator as an inhuman monster and instead we are faced with a person with a history, emotions and misfortunes who has committed atrocities for reasons which resist simplicity.
The Reader approaches examination of the Holocaust in a way which questions the rigid dichotomy of good and evil people. In doing so, the novel controversially places almost no emphasis on the experience of the victim and instead focuses on the complexity of perpetrators and those who know and love them. It is an uncomfortable examination of the deeply flawed condition of humans and their actions yet it also manages to be extraordinarily beautiful. The Reader is one of those rare novels which has the power to haunt your thoughts long after reading, and one which will make you question the nature of judgement itself.