Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Fiction Review: The Reader

Most people know of The Reader as the movie for which Kate Winslet recently won a Best Actress Academy Award, but The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink, was a best-selling and award-winning novel in both Germany and the United States before it was made into a movie.

The novel opens with fifteen-year old Michael Berg, who gets sick on the way home from school and is helped by a 36-year old woman. Months later, when Michael goes back to thank the woman for her help, he finds he is attracted to her and can’t stop thinking of her. The woman, Hanna, notices his attraction to her, and the two begin to have a love affair that continues as Michael recovers his health and goes back to school.

They settle into a routine of meeting at her apartment, where they make love and he reads aloud to her. Despite their physical closeness and seeming love for each other, they remain emotionally distant in some ways, and Hanna’s words and actions are often mystifying to Michael.

Many years later, Michael sees Hanna again in a court, where he is an observing law student, and she is standing trial, accused of horrible crimes. Michael is fascinated by the ongoing trial, and once again mystified by Hanna’s behavior, as she seems unwilling to defend herself.

While the action of the novel is engrossing, the real meat of it lies in its exploration of emotional and moral complexities. Schlink explores issues of crime and punishment, of love and forgiveness, of guilt and absolution. The novel compares and contrasts Michael and Hanna’s past and present, with frequent foreshadowing and Michael’s ongoing emotional battles within himself, as indicated here in a passage that takes place during their affair:

Why does it make me so sad when I think back to that time? Is it yearning for past happiness – for I was happy in the weeks that followed, in which I really did work like a lunatic and passed the class, and we made love as if nothing else in the world mattered. Is it the knowledge of what came later, and that what came out afterwards had been there all along?
Why? Why does what was beautiful suddenly shatter in hindsight because it concealed dark truths?

I enjoyed this book very much – both the interesting and suspenseful story as well as the intriguing moral questions posed. As with all moral issues, there are no easy answers – for either Michael or the reader – but shades of gray that are thought provoking. I wish that I had read this book with one of my book groups because it would be a very interesting one to discuss. And, yes, I do plan to see the movie now.

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