Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak

In the past few weeks I mentioned to a few people that I was reading a book that was narrated by Death. That got a few odd looks, so I'd quickly try to explain that it wasn't as morbid as it sounded; it was really quite good, in fact. Maybe I convinced some of them...

At any rate, The Book Thief is a wonderful novel. Death turns out to be a thoroughly competent narrator, almost, but not quite, omniscient, self-effacing in such a way that I empathized with his "life" as well as the characters. I even forgot at times that Death was narrating until he made some aside comment that brought back the reality of his existence. The story is crafted amazingly well, with profound beauty in spite of the progression toward what seems inevitable. It traces a few years in the life of Leisel Meminger, from the time she arrives in Molching, Germany as a nine-year-old foster child in 1939 to the bombing of her street in 1943. The characters are believable - it's a different time and culture, but they could be your neighbors, your friends, your family - with enough flaws to be real and enough heart to make you love them.

I'm sure I can't add much to what has already been said about The Book Thief. I did find it interesting that it was originally published as an adult novel in Australia (see editorial reviews on Amazon), instead of the young adult market to which it was targeted in the U.S. Adults should certainly not be put off by the fact that it's in the young adult section of the library or book store. The themes it deals with are universal - value of humanity, friendship, love, respect, suffering, fear - but the setting of Nazi Germany and the foreshadowing of devastation brings out the significance of these ideas in a truly unique way. I appreciated the fact that it was written from the perspective of common people, trying to survive and live as best they could in the midst of war and evil politics. The writing is clear and particularly descriptive, and Death's perception of color makes some scenes even more poignant or startling, such as this:
When I recollect her, I see a long list of colors, but its the three in which I saw her in the flesh that resonate the most. Sometimes I manage to float far above those three moments. I hang suspended until a septic truth bleeds toward clarity.

That's when I see them formulate.

* * * THE COLORS * * *
RED [rectangle] WHITE [circle] BLACK [swastika]

They fall on top of each other. The scribbled signature black, onto the blinding global white, onto the thick soupy red. (14)
Doesn't that just take your breath away when you realize the imagery?

Here are a few more of my favorite passages:

"In years to come, he would be a giver of bread, not a stealer - proof again of the contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water." (164)

"If only she could be so oblivious again, to feel such love without knowing it, mistaking it for laughter and bread with only the scent of jam spread on top of it." (358)

On the first bomb threat in Molching: "I only know that all of those people would have sensed me that night, excluding the youngest of the children. I was the suggestion. I was the advice, my imagined feet walking into the kitchen and down the corridor." (376)

What Max, the hiding Jew, did during the first siren raid: "'I couldn't help it,' he said...'I could see outside. I watched, only for a few seconds.' He had not seen the outside world for twenty-two months...It was Papa who spoke. 'How did it look.' Max lifted his head, with great sorrow and great astonishment. 'There were stars,' he said. 'They burned my eyes.'" (377-378)

"They watched the Jews come down the road like a catalog of colors. That wasn't how the book thief described them, but I can tell you that that's exactly what they were, for many of them would die...The suffering faces of depleted man and women reached across to them, pleading not so much for help - they were beyond that - but for an explanation. Just something to subdue this confusion." (391-392)

"Had he not lost his cigarettes to Hans Hubermann, he wouldn't have despised him. If he hadn't despised him, he might not have taken his place a few weeks later on a fairly innocuous road. One seat, two men, a short argument, and me. It kills me sometimes, how people die." (464)

"It was with great sadness that she realized that her brother would be six forever, but when she held that thought, she also made an effort to smile...She smiled and smiled, and when it all came out, she walked home and her brother never climbed into her sleep again." (473)

"Papa - the accordionist - and Himmel Street. One could not exist without the other, because for Liesel, both were home. Yes, that's what Hans Hubermann was for Liesel Meminger." (538)

"I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right." (528)


Laura said...

My family and I loved this book! Thanks for reviewing it.

Sandra said...

Lovely review. This was among my top three favourite books the year it came out. All I heard was how awful it must be and that it's for Young Adults anyway. Not when it was first published in Australia. Knopf marketed it that way when it got to the US. But I feel vindicated since so many people have now read it and liked it. Thanks for reviewing it.

My Two Blessings said...

Great review. Not ordinarily a book I would consider. Thanks to your review, it just went on my wishlist. Thanks.

Robin of My Two Blessings