As part of my ongoing but occasional series of book reviews, I wanted to share my Goodreads review of The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, in slightly revised form.
I wanted to like The Reader by Bernhard Schlink so much more and I think if you approached it as more of a lay reader rather than someone who has studied German history extensively it would be a better read. Another Goodsread reviewer described this book as a “Buildungsroman” and I wish I could remember who it was because they were spot on. The plot unfolds along traditional lines. A great deal of time is devoted to the loss of innocence, particularly the narrators sexual education at the hands of an older woman. We understand why the narrator is so smitten, but the woman, Hanna, remains aloof. I found this off-putting, particularly because the relationship reminded me of something that would be a sensationalist headline in today’s media like “Teacher seduces student.” I wanted to know her motivation, but was left wanting. The teaser on the back of the book promises a shocking reveal when the two meet again after a lengthy separation. For me, even the “surprises” were predictable and that may have taken away some of my enjoyment of The Reader.
That being said, I think there is a lot to recommend in this book. I hope it is not a spoiler to say the relationship between Hanna and the narrator is meant to symbolize larger patterns of German history and an idea of who, if anyone, should be held guilty and responsible for past German crimes. For many people, this slim novel is a good way to open the door to a fuller discussion of morality, government crime, and the idea of who is a perpetrator and who is a bystander and why the distinction matters. The memory of the Holocaust is an important issue and The Reader considers who is responsible for keeping the memory but also if it is necessary to keep the memory alive and what is the burden of knowledge.
On the other hand, for those already well versed in Holocaust literature and memory, there is not much to be gleaned from the otherwise predictable book. Gunter Grass, the former Hitler Youth, does a better job of addressing guilt, national character and responsibility and does so in more innovative ways. It is as if Schlink has bundled those ideas in a sexier more casual reader friendly form. You could do worse than The Reader, but you could also do better.