Monday, February 16, 2009

The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak

When was the last time you read a story narrated by Death? Well, going by this book, set in Germany during the Second World War, he (she?) is a witty and articulate narrator. Also, sadly, overworked. Yet as he moves about carrying away the souls of thousands of people from farms, houses, concentration camps and battlefields, he tells us the story of one extraordinary little girl and her love of words.

Liesel findes herself abandoned with foster parents in a small town near Dachau. Her father is dead, her brother has died in front of her, and she will never see or hear from her mother again. She can't read, despite being nearly ten, and school is a daily humiliation. Gradually, her foster father, Hans Hubermann, helps her settle in and teaches her to read.She makes friends, learns to fight and curse like the best of them, and endures the tough love of her shrewish foster mother. And then, right under the noses of the Nazis and their rabid pro- Hitler neighbours, they take in a young jewish refugee and hide him in their basement.

Slowly, Max and Liesel bond - first over the nightmares they both have, and then over her fondness for books. Max draws her two stories, which for me were the most moving sections of the book. Rather appropriately, the books are drawn on painted-over pages of Hitler's horrible opus, 'Mein Kampf'. They are presented as is, sudden graphic novelletes that burst out from the book, with the dim print of the original visible below. The lines are childish, but the stories they tell are very profound, and their presence made me wonder if the author was paying homage to that terrific graphic novel, Maus: A Survivor's Tale. Things seem fine, until one instinctive act of kindness by Hans puts Max in danger, and destroys their life.

I loved this book. It doesn't pussyfoot around the horror of that time simply because it's for kids. It certainly doesn't aim for the gentle sadness of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Like all books about the Holocaust, you know things will get a lot worse in this book before they get better. A sense of foreboding looms as the story progresses, and it doesn't help that Death is a constant presence throughout. It's a story about the destruction of life, and its protagonist's struggle for survival against hunger, poverty and the backlash of war .People die in horrible ways, children suffer. Death cracks jokes and is apologetic about having to do his job., but does it anyway. And he doesn't always spare the innocent, or take only the ones who want to go. And yet, says Death, 'I am haunted by humans' - especially by their endurance under suffering, and their ability to " both so ugly and so glorious, and their words .. .so damning and brilliant".

The complexity of the characters had me impressed. Liesel is no wide eyed innocent. She is foul mouthed and thieving, she can wound with her words as well as with her fists,yet never expresses her love for her mother or best friend. Rosa, Liesel's foster mother, starts off as a foul mouthed harridan, yet she will risk her life to take in a Jew and be shattered by the sight of the neighbour's son returned from war. And her love for her husband, veiled under abuse, is revealed only when he is taken away to war. Liesel herself, struggles with her growing attraction to her friend Rudy, even as she connects at a deeper level with Max. Her need to read draws her to the emotionally wrecked Ilse Hermann and the almost wordless relationship between the two, built around books, is another little gem.

This is a book about war and human endurance, and about love and courage.But most of all it is a book about the power of words. It is also a a rather uncommon thing - a story about the War from the viewpoint of the Germans - in this case, innocent Germans bearing the brunt of the destruction triggered by Hitler.Where Hitler used words to stoke hatred, Liesel uses them to bind people. She reads out to the families cowering with her in a bomb shelter; her reading makes her unlikely friends - the wife of the Mayor, their sharp tongued neighbour.When her world crumbles around her and she can no longer bear to read, she begins to write.

There were times I felt the author was stretching the story out too much. Some sections of the book did feel overly dramatized, aimed squarely for the reader's tear ducts. Death as the narrator is also something of a killjoy - he frequently reveals too much before time, and launches into little monologues that are not always necessary, and begins to sound very predictable. And while the language is for the most part stunning, there were the occasional strange turns of phrase, clearly structured for dramatic effect, that didn't work for me ("drizzle came down in spades"; " ..he tasted like regret in the shadows of trees.". This is a story powerful enough without needing gimmicky language props like these. In this regard, 'Striped Pyjamas' works better with its minimalist approach, and by staying true to a child's eye view of the world around it.

Nevertheless, this is a thought- provoking book that everyone should read.


  1. This is a good review and an honest rendition of Zusak's epic. I have ranked it as my best read of 2008. I, however, differ in the view that it's a teenage book. The depths this story has, I guess, would be difficult to appreciate for children.

    For me, as I have said at many places by now, this story succeeds in defining by example what 'humanity' means. It expresses hope by creating such humane characters on Hitler's side of the world and as his contemporary.

  2. Hi, Bookcrazy and welcome to the blog. I was quite surprised myself to find it marked for young adult readers. But my thirteen year old nephew is halfway through it and loves it.

  3. I really liked this book also. It is somewhat ironic that the book was not released as a young adult book in Australia, Zusak is an Australian writer. I do think that teenagers would cope quite well with it though, we do underestimate what kids are capable of. I know of a number of high school libraries who have chosen to promote this book. I liked Death as a narrator, Terry Pratchett has utilised Death as a character and I found Zusak's character to have a very similar voice to Pratchett's. There is some wonderful phrasing in this book and the occasional humour acts as a nice counter to the horror. It is definately a book worth reading, again it is ironic that in Australia it is not widely known and certainly not promoted as a young adult book.