Narrated by Michael Berg, a lawyer recollecting on his past, the story is told in three parts. The first features a 15-year-old Michael as he began a relationship with Hanna Schmidt in post-WWII Germany. Hanna is a much older woman who reveals very little of herself to Michael. There is tenderness in their relationship, and the two spend much of their time together with Michael reading classic novels aloud to her. Then, Hanna suddenly leaves and Michael is left wondering what happened to her. All his subsequent relationships are tarnished by the memory of Hanna.
Years go by and the second part shows Michael at university studying law. The Nazi war crimes trials are being held and Michael discovers that Hanna is on trial for her role as a concentration camp guard. Michael realises that he never really knew Hanna. Is she guilty or was she too a victim? Did she really understand what she was part of it? Can she atone for crimes? Michael grapples with these questions and struggles with his feelings.
The third part is much later with Michael corresponding to an imprisoned, older Hanna. He is trying to reconcile the love he had for her in his youth and his hatred of the evils she committed.
Schlink has an easy style, gently unfolding the tale in layers. The story is complex, raising deeply moral questions, and yet is a quick, accessible read. It is effectively a study in guilt and atonement, using the Holocaust as the catalyst to reflect on generational responsibility and the legacy of what came before. Innocence is lost, secrets are revealed and judgments are made.
The character of Hanna is difficult to reconcile. She used a young man, committed horrible atrocities so the reader can see her as a war criminal and a paedophile. And yet the reader can feel empathy for her tragic life. Faced with the dilemma of self-preservation or resistance, Hanna made a fateful choice. As she asks the judge in her trial “What would you have done?” This question leaves readers wondering what they would have done in her shoes.
The film version of this novel was directed by Stephen Daldry and starred Ralph Fiennes as the adult Michael and Kate Winslet as Hanna. Winslet was excellent in the role, winning the Academy Award for Best Actress. I thought the film was very good but lacked the punch of the novel, in some ways glossing over the complexities I found in the book. It is still very much worth watching, but I would encourage reading the book first.