The Reader

Bernard Schlink

The Reader tells the story of a love affair between the narrator, a 15-year-old boy, and Hannah, a woman in her mid-30s. Their brief but poignant interlude will haunt the boy for the rest of his life. The novel is set in Germany, beginning in the late 1950s. During the war, years before they met, the young boy’s lover had been a guard in a concentration camp, and years after the affair is over she is called to trial for war crimes. The book falls neatly in half—the love affair and the trial. Schlink doesn’t allow the reader to assume moral superiority and forces us to examine questions about guilt and complicity that recur in each generation. I bought the book during a recent trip to Prague, and part of its impact may have come from reading it on ground that had seen so much of that history unfold. But surely credit goes to the simplicity of the prose, and the emotional power of its main character, Hannah. The book leaves the reader with the distinct sense that the line between victim and villain is not always clear and, as in the recent Lynndie England case at Abu Ghraib, the question of how one behaves may be determined as much by our fate as by our character.