When fifteen-year-old Michael Berg falls ill on his way home from school, he is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover, enthralling him with her passion, but puzzling him with her odd silences. Then she disappears.
Michael next sees Hanna when she is on trial for a hideous crime, refusing to defend herself. As he watches, he begins to realize that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.
When I first started this book, I was wondering if I had wandered into an area of ‘ick’, what with Michael being so young. Do not let this deter you if it is the reason you have yet to pick up the book. The Reader is narrated by Michael Berg as he looks back on his life, specifically his relationship with Hanna Schmitz, an older woman that he meets when he is 15 years old.
This unlikely couple form an attachment of sorts and a relationship of the physical sort ensues when they meet by chance. Part of this burgeoning relationship includes the sharing of literature, with Michael reading to Hanna. You would think that their age difference would be disturbing, as Hanna is twice his age, but it is exactly the opposite. Perhaps it is the era, living in the shadow of Germany’s recent war forced many to grow up quickly, or it could be that we are seeing the relationship innocently through the eyes of Michael. Whichever it is, it was poignant and sweet, so don’t be afraid to give this book a chance.
It is one of the pictures of Hanna that has stayed with me. I have them stored away, I can project them on a mental screen and watch them, unchanged, unconsumed. There are long periods when I don’t think about them at all. But they always come back into my head, and then I sometimes have to run them repeatedly through my mental projector and watch them. One is Hanna putting on her stockings in the kitchen. Another is Hanna standing in front of the tub holding the towel in her outstretched arms. Another is Hanna riding her bike with her skirt blowing in her slipstream. Then there is the picture of Hanna in my father’s study. She’s wearing a blue-and-white striped dress, what they called a shirtwaist back then. She looks young in it. She has run her finger along the backs of the books and looked into the darkness of the window. She turns to me, quickly enough that the skirt swings out around her legs for a moment before it hangs smooth again. Her eyes are tired.
“Are these books your father has just read, or did he write them too?”
I knew there was a book on Kant and another on Hegel that my father had written, and I searched for them and showed them to her.
“Read me something from them. Please, kid?”
The first part of the book ends inevitably when Hanna disappears suddenly. This is not a surprise to us… their age difference and the fact that their relationship is never publicly acknowledged foreshadows this abrupt end.
The story picks up ten years later with Michael as a law student. He gets the surprise of his life when he discovers that Hanna is a part of a trial he is observing. She is one of several concentration camp guards on trial for war crimes. Some of Hanna’s behaviour during their relationship suddenly makes sense, given the secrets that she had been keeping.
After the trial, Michael eventually begins to communicate with Hanna once again. He records stories and sends them to her. Shortly before her release from prison, Michael meets with Hanna one last time.
Michael’s narration and his reflection back on his life offers us wisdom and the ever valuable lesson to be happy in the moment. He also gives us insight into how one’s past relationships can shape and carve your future relationships, and affect the choices you make later in life.
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? Why does the memory of years of happy marriage turn to gall when our partner is revealed to have had a lover all those years? Because such a situation makes it impossible to be happy? But we were happy! Sometimes the memory of happiness cannot stay true because it ended unhappily. Because happiness is only real if it lasts forever? Because things always end painfully if they contained pain, conscious or unconscious, all along? But what is unconscious, unrecognized pain?
Initially we might think that this story is about a young boy coming of age through his relationship with an older woman but this book is much more than that. The generation of German citizens that were too young during the Second World War did not escape the shame and guilt that The Holocaust brought with it. If you are concerned, be assured that this book does not go into devastating detail, instead, it looks at the emotional aftermath. How is the next generation to live with what happened and what are they now to do? This book is also about how we love… how blind we choose to be at times, and how we can love someone despite their flaws.