However, the fact that I had no driven her away did not change the fact that I had betrayed her. So I was still guilty. And if I was not guilty because one cannot be guilty of betraying a criminal, then I was guilty of having loved a criminal.
Schlink’s story centres on the relationship between Michael Berg and an older woman, Hanna Schmitz, who is almost double his age. Their affair would prove to haunt the two for the rest of their lives. During the relationship the two create a pattern where Michael frequently reads aloud to Hanna who becomes entirely consumed in this activity. When the relationship have appeared to run its physical course during Michael’s final year at high school, Hanna suddenly disappears one day and Michael is filled with guilt at his behaviour the last time he saw her.
Michael sees Hanna again while he is at university studying law. He recognises Hanna in the coutroom that is trying a group of women, including Hanna, for war crimes. Michael is forced to confront his love, or perhaps intense attraction or infatuation, for Hanna and the heinous crimes she may have committed. Much of the blame is directed as Hanna in the courtcase while Michael discovers a secret that Hanna is willing to be senteced to life in jail in order to protect it. Frustated, Michael lets the the court runs its course without interference and Hanna is sentenced.
Eight years later, Michael is wracked with insomnia. He cannot sleep nor read quietly so he reads aloud. Remembering how he once used to read aloud for Hanna, Michael tapes his readings and sends them to Hanna, who is still in jail.
This silent and omnipresent relationship is haunting. Despite the two spending so little time together physically and barely communicating, their relationship is poignant and dysfunctional, spreading through both character’s lifetime.
Schlink’s holocaust novel is not your typical story. It also deals with the Nazi crimes and era by exploring its effect on the second generation. The parents of the post-war generation were a part of such a heinous history, whether indirectly or directly, and their children ultimately point their fingers at their parents condeming them to shame.
Part philosophy, part romance and partly dealing with the Holocaust, Schlink’s novel is beautiful to read and powerfully evocative.