Book Review: The Book Thief

April 23, 2009 in Book Reviews, On Writing by pacejmiller

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Recently I’ve been envious of a lot of other writers (pretty much after every book I read).  It may be the way they can create vivid images in my mind with apparent ease, or the way they can use dialogue to make their characters come alive effortlessly – or just their success.   Well, add Markus Zusak, the award-winning Australian author of The Book Thief, to that list.

I bought The Book Thief almost a year ago, but it wasn’t until my recent European trip that I actually got around to reading it.  Here’s what I thought of it.

What is it about?

I never like to give away too much plot, so all I will say is that The Book Thief centers around a young girl named Liesel Meminger (who, of course, is the Book Thief), and the story takes place during World War II in Nazi Germany.  Sounds pretty familiar right?  But don’t be tricked by the premise.  The Diary of Anne Frank it is not.  The Book Thief is, without a doubt, one of the most unusual books I have ever read.

What makes it unusual?

For starters, the storyteller of the novel is Death.  Yes, that’s right, Death.  A rather apt choice considering that the story takes place during the Holocaust.  However, despite the grim topic and the grimmer narrator, Zusak manages to convey the story in a (for the most part) lighthearted manner that is brimming with its young protagonist’s curiosity and mischief.  Perhaps it takes away some of that realism and genuine horror, but having the story told by a character supposedly detached from humanity was eerily effective.  Further, the story is told largely from the point of view of the Germans.  In fact, there’s only one main Jewish character in the whole book.

The Book Thief is also a love affair with books – and a examination of the power of words and stories.  Indeed, Zusak alludes to the view that Hitler was able to become who he was because he was a master of words – a master at using words to manipulate people.  He didn’t need to be big and strong or wealthy, and he didn’t need a gun.  He became the most powerful man in the world because he understood the power of words.

So, how was it?

To be honest, it took a while for me to get into The Book Thief.  Not because it was boring (though it was slow in certain parts), but because of the book’s unusual style.  The narrative jumps around a bit, and there’s the occasional poetic extract in bold from the narrator that breaks things up.  Each section of the book also has a tiny summary at the front, comprised primarily of single words, short phrases and things that don’t make much sense until you finish the section.  It was highly unusual.

Furthermore, despite the scope of the events surrounding the characters, The Book Thief is a very personal story.  It is essentially focused on a single town, a single street (which happens to be the street on which the protagonist lives) and on a small handful of characters.

Even when I finally got used to it, for a while I wondered where the story was going and what it was getting at.  Dare I say I even found it difficult to read on, despite the fact that the book was clearly fabulously written.

But I’m glad I did, because gradually, I realized that it wasn’t all just aimless wandering.  Before long, I realized that I actually cared about the characters.  I realized that I was sympathizing with Germans in the Holocaust.  Though their suffering paled in comparison to the Jews, that does not mean they were not victims too.

By the end of the book, I was deeply moved.  At some point (and I don’t know exactly where, except that it was quite late), The Book Thief stops being just an exceptionally written novel – it simply becomes exceptional.  It’s one of those books with the ability to linger in your mind long after the final page.

Overall, I’d say it was a good book that unfortunately didn’t become great until it neared the end.  Perhaps a little too long and a little tedious at times, but there was no doubting how well it was written.  And it does pack an emotional punch at the end.  3.5 out of 5 stars!

Zuzak’s writing style

While the novel has its problems it does not mean the author is not worthy of praise.  I grew increasingly envious of Markus Zusak’s writing ability as the book progressed.  In particular, Zusak has a knack for descriptions (which I consider one of my weakest points as a writer).  In The Book Thief, some of his descriptions are so out of the ordinary and so brilliant that it made me shake my head.  Especially those relating to character traits.  For instance, Liesel’s foster mother is repeated referred to as a ‘cardboard woman’; her foster father has ‘silver eyes’ and her best friend has ‘yellow hair’.  These may seem unremarkable but whenever I saw these references in the book I would instantly recognize the character.  These images are so ingrained in my memory that I can still immediately come up with them off the top of my head despite having finish the book weeks ago.  Some may be unimpressed with his overuse of metaphors (like ‘the sky was the colour of Jews’) or even find his style pretentious, but as an aspiring writer trying to learn the craft, I was intrigued by his confident use of unusual descriptions and imagery.

I also found Zusak to be a great craftsman who is able to shape a story with control and subtlety – he doesn’t rub anything in your face.  He builds it up, gives you the chance to learn the characters.  At the same time he gives you room to think about and interpret the imagery (and there is a lot of that, especially in the short stories and hand-drawn artwork in the book).  Even if you don’t enjoy the book, it doesn’t hurt reading it just to see and learn from the way Zusak writes (regardless of whether you like his style or not).

It doesn’t appear that Zusak was naturally gifted with these skills.  I just read a fascinating interview with the author entitled ‘Why I write’ in which he describes his struggles with writing (see here).  It also has some terrific insights into the craft and process of writing which I found very useful.  Another great article on his personal journey in creating The Book Thief can be found here.  Just shows it’s not easy coming up with an international bestseller.

Maybe there’s still hope for me.