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
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.