The Reader is a book about first love, about war, about literature, about humanity, and how time changes everything.
15 year old Michael, a German boy is suffering from hepatitis, and is helped by a stranger. When he is recovered, his mother tells him to thank the lady who helped him. She is Hanna, 36 years old, and she is soon to become his first lover, an event which will have an impact on all of Michael’s subsequent relationships. Theirs is of an intense physical nature, and each day after school, he goes round to see her, timing his visits with her shifts on the tram. Nothing much is said about their age gap, but Michael only feels safe being seen publicly with her in the next town to the one they live in.
He is a bright student, and soon starts to read novels, and books to Hanna. It becomes a part of the ritual in the time that they spend together. Shortly, Hanna leaves town, and Michael sees nothing more of her. He becomes a law student, and continues with his life, until years later he sees Hanna again.
She is being tried for war crimes: she was a camp guard charged with being partly responsible for the deaths of dozens of women in a church. She is charged with writing the reports, and the half truths that it holds. Michael knows this is not possible. Hanna is illiterate, but it would appear that Hanna does not mind serving extra time in prison, if she can keep the secret to herself.
After a while, Michael begins to read to Hanna again, sending her tape after tape of novels he has read. He is the only person who communicates with Hanna in the 18 years she is there. She begins to write to Michael, and learns to read by following the text in the books he has sent her on tape. He visits her, just once, and finding she is much changed. He arranges a house and a job for her release, but the night before she is released, she hangs herself, seemingly unable to face the outside world.
The book looks at Michael’s changing attitude to both Hanna, and the crimes she has committed. There is a different tone throughout the three distinct sections of the novel.
The Reader by Bernard Schlink
978-0-7538-2329 – 3 W&N pbk
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