Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Book Thief (a book review)

   This novel, The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, is a title our club consumed a few months ago. I am just now reviewing it, honestly, because I am just now finishing it. I did not much groove this book, you guys. Not much at all. And this places me squarely in our club's minority. It has several redeeming qualities, for sure, and I am happy to share them with you and encourage you to try it for yourself; but overall I had to push and prod myself through page after page. Even with nice, beefy subject matter like friendship and survival, coming of age, and genocide, I like books to offer a little more momentum than that. Okay, now that that's out of the way... Have you heard of The Book Thief?

   It is a fancifully written but gritty, personal account of a young girl living in Nazi Germany. It is told more or less from the perspective of Death himself, which as far as I remember is why our club chose the book in the first place. Written by Marcus Zusak, this story is aimed at a Young Adults audience and in fact spent almost a year on the New York Times Children's Literature best seller's list. That's quite something! And it may sort of explain why I had a hard time connecting with it.

   The format is unique, in that Death sometimes narrates in a comfortably informal, conversational tone, and other times the story is told as distantly as any novel. I greatly preferred the odd narration and really liked how Zusak used sensual imagery to convey war and death. Especially luscious are the long series of different ways Death lifts a soul from its body, and often, interestingly, vivid accounts of the sky at the moment each soul is claimed.

"The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. 
In some places it was burned. 
There were black crumbs, and pepper, 
streaked across the redness."

   That was well done, as were many scattered elements of the story. I got lost in more than a few descriptive scenes like that. And he does express pain really well.

"Hans Hubermann sat with her. 
He placed his hand on hers, as she fell back to the hard ground.
He allowed her screams to fill the street."

   The characters are only marginally sympathetic for me, until the very tail end of the book, and by then I was rather exhausted. On the other hand, the characters were realistic and believably flawed, less heroic than we are used to seeing in novels. Perhaps that was his whole point, that the World Wars were fought by real people, that not all Germans were all evil or all good, and that not all Jews or Allies were either.

   Again, this is important historical material, and perhaps it is intended to fall on ears that have had little exposure to World War II realities. Zusak does a great job reducing the big events to the cellular level, relaying, for example, how a bombing raid would feel to a village, to a family, to a young girl. And through the main character's life story we are invited to see how the wars affected German bystanders who were not necessarily Hitler supporters. These are valuable perspectives, for sure. And I do not mean to discount them or any other part of the book with my overall negative impression of it. It was just a slightly laborious read.

   I find myself wishing Zusak would write something else, something more adult, employing more of the fringed imagery he has invented.

   Have you read this book? Please share your thoughts. And please do not forward this to the author.

A Friend to All is a Friend to None, 
Even in Book Reviews


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