The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2007)
Not just another jaunt through the holocaust. Liesel is taken in by the Hubermanns, who are shortly also sheltering Max, who happens to be Jewish. Meanwhile, Liesel grows up in Nazi Germany. Spoilers: Books are stolen (and other things too). Everyone dies. (Except the Jew. And some other people, too.)
I liked it. A lot. Mr. Zusak’s gift for words, a story I didn’t expect that still felt real, characters, and an eclectic and engaging style. Plus, it’s narrated by Death. (Don’t worry, the whole book isn’t in DEATH SPEAK. Sorry, TP.) Oh, and pictures.
The story surprised me, but it never threw me. Zusak manipulated both my expectations coming into the story (it’s WW2 and everyone dies) and the expectations he was building for me with skilled foreshadowing (and out right spoilers). I was always guessing slightly wrong about what was coming next. The story felt natural, not twisted or crooked or broken into awkward shapes. People kept living when I was expecting them to die, being smart when I was expecting them to be stupid, and generally not making any more tension then they had to. The events didn’t drag me along, however. The plot isn’t particularly important to the story, which is about friendship, or possibly about fear. Or maybe about both. Regardless, Zusak’s characters are more important then his plot.
Although not fantastic, the characters none the less acted and reacted in ways that felt people-like. Their emotions moved the story along, kept me interested, and occasionally surprised me. This was especially evident in Rosa, Liesel’s foster mother. When we first meet her she is grumpy and cussing, so I pegged her as ‘verbally abusive foster mother’ and moved on. She was, but she was more as well. Zusak let her have a variety of motivations and relationships which turned her into a complicated piece of the action, instead of just another antagonistic force. I loved watching Rosa and her family interact because Zusak did so much more with her then I was expecting.
All of the major characters felt like real people, deep and confused and scared and trying as best they could to do what they could. The narrator was my favorite though, perhaps because we have the most direct exposure to him. (I love the way he talks. And he’s so cynical and hopeful and sad and scared.)
What I most admire about the book was the style. Zusak wove tension and emotion into his piece with apparent ease. He has an eye for little details that make the scene real, like the texture of a book or the timbre1 of a voice, and a finely honed talent for picking evocative ways of expressing them. These details are the foundation of everything that is excellent about this book. His deft choices define his characters and his narrator, and they are the notes with which he builds up the piece’s demanding rhythm.
The rhythm of the book is what pulls me along. Not like someone speaking, but like a dancer, leading. Zusak twirls us aside for points of emphasis and brings us back without loosing the thread of the scene. There are pictures, and headings, and tiny scenes broken into chunks. It’s strange, it’s fun, and it worked.
My big complaint is that occasionally the narrator explained too much, took too much time to re-iterate or remember the meaning of a scene. But honestly, it only happened three times, and although it’s a bit eye-roll-y, the emotion he wants us to feel (and we’re already feeling) can mostly persist through it.
Too Long, Didn’t Read: Nazi Germany, here we come. Rhythm and grace, and impact to boot. Quirky and still completely followable. Best of all? Not depressing.
1 Dude, timbre? Who uses that word? Sounds like a made-up musical instrument. It’s probably related to a lute.
One thought on “The Book Thief”
Just finished the book recently, and you are spot-on. When I started reading, the style and setting immediately made me roll my eyes – here we go, another overly pretentious, trying-to-be-literary, depressing holocaust novel.
The style is odd. More than odd. Bizarre, almost, in the way it hops around and delivers bits and pieces at unexpected intervals. But it WORKS. And like you said, all the people are PEOPLE. The Hubermans seem like they’re going to be the bland unhappy-family trope with the overbearing wife and the henpecked mild husband and the traumatized foster kid… and then it all turns upside down when they’re not like that at all. Except when they are. Except when they’re not. Anyways I’d better stop gushing now.