THIS IS THE TALE OF THE BOOK THIEF,
AS NARRATED BY DEATH.
AND WHEN DEATH TELLS A STORY,
YOU REALLY HAVE TO LISTEN.
It’s just a small story really, about, amongst other things:
Some Fanatical Germans
A Jewish Fist Fighter
And Quite A Lot Of Thievery.
– Book description on cover
With an intriguing blurb like that how could I not buy the book? But it doesn’t really give one an accurate idea of what the novel is actually about. Allow me:
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is about a German orphan girl named Liesel Meminger whose adoptive parents, living in the fictional town of Molching near Dachau, shelter a Jew during the early years of the Second World War. It is, as the blurb says, narrated by Death (who isn’t nice, but can be quite cheerful and even amiable) and quite a few books (among other things) get stolen throughout the course of the story. Of course, it’s not the books themselves that are important, but rather the one who steals them.
I wouldn’t blame you if you stopped reading this novel during the first hundred pages or so. The narrative voice comes across as a bit gimmicky when every now and then Death interrupts the narrative to make some profound observation or merely to list a bunch of facts.
There’s also too much German. Sure, the story is set in Germany, but once you’ve established that while we’re reading in English the characters are actually speaking German, it’s not necessary to have a sentence in German on every second page immediately followed by the translation. The odd slang word here and there is more than sufficient to keep us aware of the fact.
Also not a lot happens in those first hundred pages. Almost all of it is introducing the characters and describing the context and the plot only really begins fairly late into the novel.
I very nearly put this novel down before I reached page 100. I’m glad I didn’t.
Because once it got going The Book Thief became a story that pulled me along and wouldn’t let me go. I won’t use the words exciting or gripping to describe it. Rather…engaging.
Zusak has managed to write a story that absorbs one completely. There’s not a single character (except for the fanatical Germans, of course) about whom I did not come to care deeply. Most of the characters are well-rounded, even the ones who do not play a major part in the story, and one is able to understand why each character acts the way he or she does. The story itself is incredibly simple, but never dull.
The gimmicky feel of Death’s voice never quite went away for me, but this narrator was able to make certain observations and even give certain facts that no human narrator would have been able to get away with. He gives us glimpses of the future, which adds a whole different dimension to the novel. The ending, for example, is revealed already halfway through the story. But somehow this works. It doesn’t feel like a spoiler, but is just one more reason to keep reading. Death also becomes a character in own right – he’s just a guy trying to do a rather unpleasant job. Liesel is, according to him, a distraction which makes his job just a little easier to do.
One of the greatest strengths of the novel is that it gives something I haven’t found yet in any other story dealing with this period of history: the story of the Germans who were not really a part of Hitler’s plan for world domination, but who were just trying to carry on with their lives and provide for their families as best they could. Even as the Jewish prisoners are marched through Molching on their way to the concentration camp at Dachau, Zusak manages to make one feel as much pity for the Germans standing along the road watching them (well, some of the Germans, at least). The novel shows us that the traditional “bad guys” of WWII were not all necessarily so.
The story is also a testament to the power of words. It acknowledges that Hitler’s Germany was built on them, but in this story words also calm those who are afraid, heals those who are broken and bring together people who on the face of it are lifelong enemies.
And it is about love. Love between a boy and a girl, a German and a Jew, a husband and a wife, between parents and their child. It’s about suffering, and hope, and hardship, and celebration even when there is very little to celebrate.
I loved this book. I see it is classified in most listings as Young Adult, which I think is a gross error, as this book is a must-read for all ages. I intend reading it again and again and recommending it to everyone I see, for this book will leave you changed. After reading it you’ll not be able to read anything else for a few days. It’s one of those books.
And the ending…the ending will rip your heart from your chest and leave you a blubbering mess, but you won’t mind. In fact, you’ll say thank you for the experience.
(Afterthought: I notice our local video store got the dvd of the movie in this week. I’m hesitant about watching it, for I do not believe the movie can be as good as the book and I am so scared it will ruin the memory I have of the book. So, if you’ve both read the book and seen the film I’d love to hear from you whether the movie is worth the risk. Thanks.)