During the weeks of the trial, I felt nothing: my feelings were numbed. -from The Reader, page 100-
It is post-War Germany. Fifteen year old Michael Berg falls ill to hepatitis and meets Hanna, a woman who is more than twice his age. They become lovers. Michael reads to her. Later she disappears, only to resurface as a defendent in a trial – accused of horrific crimes against humanity. Michael remains obsessed with Hanna and later uncovers another of her secrets.
That’s the book, in a nutshell. The problem was I never felt a thing for either Michael nor Hanna, and was never emotionally engaged in their story. Michael narrates this short novel and repeatedly tells us that he feels nothing. Sadly, Schlink left this reader the same way.
Bernhard Schlink’s style is one which tells the story instead of showing it. The courtroom scenes could have been dramatic, emotional, and revealing had Schlink used dialogue to show us what was happening. Instead he simply tells the reader what is going on – a dry recitation of facts which left me oddly detached.
The Reader is a story about illiteracy which falls flat perhaps, in part, because it is paralleled with the horror of the Nazi atrocities. Schlink wants the reader to believe that illiteracy is somehow more appalling than a Nazi guard’s role in the deaths of thousands. It is a rather ludicrous position.
At one point in the novel, Michael tells us about a book written by a concentration camp survivor:
Years later I reread it and discovered that it is the book that creates distance. It does not invite one to identify with it and makes no one sympathetic, neither the mother nor the daughter, nor those who shared their fate in the various camps and finally in Auschwitz and the satellite camp near Cracow. -from The Reader, page 118-
And this was exactly how I felt about The Reader. Unconnected. Distanced from the characters. Unsympathetic toward either of the protagonists.
The Reader was a best seller in the United States and Germany and an Oprah pick, as well as a NYT Most Notable Book and Los Angeles Times Book of the Year. With those kind of credentials, I expected to love it. I did not.