The Book Thief

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, published in 2007, is a New York Times best seller, and among the reviews I’ve read, has received great praise. There are plenty of reviews out there, and if you haven’t already read or reviewed the book yourself, I suggest you read them. My purpose here is not to give a ‘proper’ review of the book; it’s to worry over why I don’t like it much. And I’d love to hear from any of you who have read it; what do you think of it? Do you think it lives up to all the raves?

It is a profound subject, the intersection of life and death, where death becomes an overwhelming presence, not just because it is set in Germany under the Nazi regime, but because Death is the narrator. The central character is a 9-year-old girl, Liesel, who witnesses her younger brother die on a train  journey with their mother, who is taking them to hand them over to foster parents. The mother is unable to look after them, for reasons which are  unclear, but she disappears from the story, and the implication is that she has been arrested as a suspected Communist.

I won’t try and summarise the plot, which is complex, not to say convoluted. Perhaps the latter is my impression of it because of the narrative style, which is jerky, interrupted by textual devices and flourishes, and by the voice of Death, who, although he/she fades from the narrative often, keeps returning to claim the telling of the story. (I ask myself, how can Death, who, especially at this time of history, had millions of souls to transport, give so much time and attention to one small girl and her story? But I am being too literal. Clearly he/she is omniscient.)

Perhaps the tone, which I often find self-conscious, even coy, and the quirky narration, can be attributed to the fact that this is classified as a young adult novel. That said, I don’t see why a subject which is so rich in meaning, with characters who are driven by desire, cruelty, fear, suspicion, mindless conformity, cowardice, bravery, suffering, tragedy, love, compassion and forgiveness, has to be quirked up. Why can’t we have a straightforward narrative voice that doesn’t try to be clever and surprising? Though there are many moving and striking descriptions and scenes, I kept bumping up against what I can only call lapses of taste, like this one, when the narrative makes a detour to Russia in 1943, when Death goes to collect some whose number has come up, including the son of a family Liesel is friends with:

Unfortunately for the young German, I did not take him that afternoon. I stepped over him with the other poor souls in my arms, and made my way back to the Russians.

Back and forth, I travelled

Disassembled men.

It was no ski trip, I can tell you.

Were I Zusak’s editor, I would have begged him to cut that last line. There are many others.

One of the most irritating parts of the book for me is a section 6 pages long, a tale written by Max, the Jew that Liesel and her foster family are hiding in their basement. He wrote it for Liesel, and her foster mother gives it to her after Max has gone; he left to protect the family from discovery and punishment. The tale is reproduced in tiny print, in a font meant to reproduce hand-written script, with illustrations. To read it comfortably I would need a magnifying glass, and my reading sight is still very good. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that this book is classified as young adult fiction.

I won’t go on. This is a very biased ‘non-review’. I haven’t talked about the many good things in the book. I was just so annoyed that it wouldn’t play straight.

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7 Comments

Filed under An anti-review

7 responses to “The Book Thief

  1. I feel differently Christina. I think “quirking it up”, looking at it from a completely different angle, in a very different tone, does a couple of things – it provides a new perspective rather than the same-old, same-old way of telling the Holocaust story which helps keep the story in front of us, and secondly the lighter tone might make it palatable for people who wouldn’t read it otherwise. I thought he was brave to do it, and I thought he pulled it off.

    • Thank you. That helps me understand why people like it so much. I don’t feel that stories of the Holocaust are ever “same-old, same-old”; each story is unique, no matter how common the themes are. I feel that deep and tragic themes don’t marry well with lighter tones and quirkiness, though there is a place for dark/black humour, which needs perfect pitch. I’d rather be heart-rended than amused!

      Sorry it’s taken a couple of days to reply; for some reason I’m not getting notification of comments lately.

      • I don’t necessarily feel they are “same-old same-old” either – I’ll read pretty much any Holocaust novel – but I think many do feel this OR they don’t want to be confronted full on by the misery. Books that take a different tack can keep the issue alive. I thought The book thief did find a good balance between the lightness and the horror of what happened to the characters. It was a big risk Zusak took – clearly it works for some but I know there are others, like you, for whom is doesn’t work.

  2. I enjoyed The Book Thief when my book club read it. It was our first book and some members have held it up as a standard ever since. I don’t feel quite that way. There were some sections and descriptions I loved. I tend to agree with Whisperinggums. Later on I read The Messenger which many people loved but I didn’t get into.

  3. The Book Thief is a favorite, partly because I love historical narrative, but also because of this unusual narrator. I had great fun being Death as I read the book aloud to my middle-school daughter. Quite a character. He watches life play out and picks up the broken pieces. Being Death, he would have those cold or snarky comments you didn’t like, yet I felt he was an empathetic figure. As for the writing, if I remember right, I stopped a number of times to soak in some wonderful phrasing or think about what Death had to say from his perspective. I have bad eyesight even with glasses, but don’t remember squinting at Max’s letter! I lent my copy out and didn’t get it back, so can’t check.

    • I’m sorry you lost your copy. Perhaps my trouble with small print in Max’s letter was reading it in bed with a soft lamplight. And perhaps your interaction with your daughter is how Death/aka Zusak wants readers to read it. Without that dialogue, I didn’t appreciate the quirkiness.

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