We are taught that Nazi Germany was a hateful place and full of hateful people, but in reality the citizens were just as badly off.
Publisher: Black Swan (Random House)
First Published: 2005
Date Reviewed: 19th April 2010
I was introduced to The Book Thief by an old friend. It stayed on my to-be-read pile for some time while I got over the demise of the friendship, in actual fact I almost packed it away, unread. That would have been a mistake.
The story is narrated by Death who explains the basic end before launching into the beginnings. Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is sent to live with foster parents, presumably because her family is on the wrong side of a hijacked law (the blurb says concentration camp but the topic is never explained in detail). With them she lives for a time in relative happiness, finding friendship and learning to read, the latter being the cause for her initial interest in stealing. But this is Nazi Germany and her family become involved in things they shouldn’t; and there is always the threat of the enemy.
It’s difficult to explain the plot of the book without giving everything away. Part of this difficulty stems from Zusak’s writing – it’s absolutely exceptional. It’s not that he’s just good with words, he uses them like a talented artist sweeps paint across canvas – you never once sense that he might have had trouble completing a sentence. This artist and paint metaphor is apt really because one of the characters is a decorator. Zusak doesn’t use “big” words, he never thrills you with academia, rather he moulds words and creates metaphors the like of which I, and I would guess you also, have never come across. A poet is someone who is clever with words but Zusak transcends that. It’s almost as though he is made of words and his physical body is but a mask to pacify humans. Consider the following quotations:
Pimples were gathered in peer groups on his face.
His thoughts criss-crossed the table.
His uniform was shiny brown. The iron was practically still on it.
Zusak’s style is one of colloquial phrases and bullet points. He surprises you in the way that he narrates often because it can be as if he doesn’t understand literary English, but what you realise is that he is saying there’s more to writing than being grammatically correct.
There are many characters in the book, and while they may not be detailed quite in the way you expect in a good novel, the descriptions are enough. Zusak ensures you feel a bond with them – it’s easy to imagine yourself there, to imagine the locations, and it’s the kind of intimacy that would make you want to stroll straight up to one of the characters and say “hi” as if you’ve known them forever.
The backdrop of the book is the Second World War but while it is the cause of a lot of plot elements the story is never weighed down by it like you might expect. As mentioned at the beginning of the review the people of Germany were in much the same situation as the rest of the world, innocent people, but this fact is not given as much airplay. Zusak puts these people in the spotlight, he provides the forgotten information and he ensures that if you read this before writing an exam your account will be broader than it would be otherwise. A book like this will scare history teachers, not because they don’t want their pupils to know the other side of the story in detail, but because this book could potentially cause people to want to go off on a tangent and explore ideas the examiners haven’t asked for. Make no mistake, this book will cause you to want to discuss.
Perhaps Zusak has thought about this issue and written accordingly, because he makes his characters affable to the outsider. Most people in The Book Thief have no animosity towards Jews and do not support the war at all. Again, there’s that bond. Zusak hasn’t thrown you in at the deep end or affirmed stereotypes and even someone who has never allowed themselves to so much as consider the other side of the story may be moved by it. Zusak is very clear in this – Hitler was the enemy, not Germany. In relation to this he makes the poignant supposition of the Jews. A Jew goes into hiding, but when he comes out he’s still German. He is and was German, that he is Jewish could never change his nationality.
You may look at the size of this book, notice the little space between lines in the text and put it back on the shelf. Don’t. One of the book’s biggest appeals is the spin off from the writing style: there are rarely long chunks of text. Most chapters are short – a few pages long – and there are many gaps where small pieces of information are supplied in the afore-mentioned bullet points. Zusak has made his story a work of art. Instead of writing everything in the usual way he’s enlisted an illustrator to draw pages of his imaginary books and bolded the important information. The Book Thief is more of an experience than a novel and although it may be off-putting at first (yes, I admit this in regards to myself) you soon get used to it.
When you think about it, a book like this is a hefty task for any author and a daunting task for any reader. In presenting it, Zusak strove to deliver a story that needed to be delivered in a way he knew would reach the hearts of the reader.
You may have bought it, borrowed it, or even stolen it. Read it, it’s what it’s there for and you don’t want to miss out.
April 21, 2010, 3:51 pm
I loved this book too! There are so many clever aspects to the writing style – I was especially impressed by using Death as a narrator. I’m very surprised that this book didn’t get more recognition from the book awards – it deserves it.
Charlie: Hi Jackie, after being told about the book I suddenly started noticing the discussions (still not sure how that works but…) so to hear to say there wasn’t much recognition is, as you’ve said, surprising. I liked Death as the narrator too, it’s what captured my initial interest, I’ve always love how Terry Pratchett incorporates him/it and looked forward to reading Zusak’s take.