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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Book Thief

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Reason for Reading: IRL Bookclub, YA Reading Challenge
Rating: 5/5

The Book Thief is not easy to review. It is, at heart, a book about the everyday life of ordinary Germans during World War II. Anyone who has ever read Holocaust literature from the Jewish point of view wonders... why the heck did all the Germans go along with the Nazis? Why didn't more Germans help Jews?

The Book Thief is about Liesel, a young, illiterate German girl who winds up living with a foster family in Munich when her mother can't care for her any longer. She becomes the book thief before she has even learned to read, stealing a book from the grave digger who buries her brother. With the Hubermans, Liesel finds a haven. Hans, a kindly soul, teaches Liesel how to read, and she developes an intense passion for books, even daring to steal one from a Nazi book-burning.

The book follows Liesel and her family as World War II is about to erupt, and it is, above all things, a character study. We follow the lives of Liesel's proud foster mother, Rosa, who shows her affection by swearing at Liesel; Max the Jewish fist fighter that the Hubermans hide in their basement; Rudy, Liesel's best friend who never gives up hope that one of these days he will ask Liesel for a kiss and she will finally say yes; the mayor's wife who lets Liesel read the books from her extensive collection.

Life in the wartime is stressful for everyone. The neighborhood must deal with hunger, poverty, the threat of bombings, and the consequences of not following along with the Nazi way. Although he isn't able to directly fight against the Nazis, Hans Huberman finds ways to resist, from painting over anti-Semetic slurs on a Jewish neighbor's door to feeding a few Jews on their way to a concentration camp, to hiding a Jew in his basement.

Liesel, for her part, becomes a voracious reader, and when she can get away with it, a thief of books and whatever she and Rudy can find to eat. Her afternoons are spent reading with Max, describing to him the weather outside

What sets this book apart from other Holocaust reads is the choice of the narrator. Death, a reluctant collector of souls, tells Liesel's story. He is big fan of lists, strong imagery, and telling us about tramautic events in the story ahead of time. This sounds kind of odd at first. Why keep reading if you already know which characters are going to die and what's going to happen? However, it kind of clicked for me when I noticed that one of the people who blurbed the book (in my edition anyhow) compared it to Slaughterhouse Five. An excellent comparison. In Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim learns that time, and by extension, death, is an illusion. Everything that has ever happened is still happening. So as character after character dies, the only thing that needs to be said is so it goes. They died a moment ago, but two more moments ago, they were alive and will always be alive.

Similarly, this book takes a more distant perspective of death. Death, weary and in need of a vacation, collects souls, and watches the colors of the sky which are different with each death. Everyone will come to him eventually, so the death of various characters is not painful, merely inevitable. And by telling us ahead of time who is going to die, Death makes the passing of characters we have come to love become less painful.

I'm really not describing very well how much Death's voice added to this book and how much I enjoyed it. The story is told to us in a very basic, factual fashion, but then every few pages, Death inserts his own commentary. He tells us what the characters are really thinking, and why various events are significant. Anecdotes about what his job is like. The book often reads like poetry thanks to Death's unique voice.

Should I read it? An unequivocal yes. I usually avoid Holocaust literature like the plague due to the heavy subject, but this book managed to keep me absolutely glued to the pages.


Renay said...

Oh gosh! I love this book. I'm so glad you did, too! And Death's voice! Sounds like we are full of hearts for this title for a lot of the same reasons.

How did you find the end when Liesel meets...well, you know. I bawled like a baby! NO SHAME HERE.

Anonymous said...

I'm really glad that you enjoyed this book as much as I did. The voice of Death really does give a different perspective on the story. I would second your must read, it's one that shouldn't be missed.

Nymeth said...

I see what you mean about Slaughterhouse Five! I actually hadn't thought of that before. I'm so glad you loved this too.

Anonymous said...

oh...I loved loved loved this book. I like how you explain the comparison to Slaughterhouse five. Death as a narrator gave a very unique feel to this book.

I have so many fav sentences from this book, but this one is by far one of the best.
"She was the book thief without the words. Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain."

Oh said...

Well. I wouldn't have considered this one. But your account of the narrator is intriguing. and the not-being-able-to-put-it-down also gets my attention. So thank you for this review...seems there are so many "thief" books but my favorite genre if you can call it that, is character studies and you mention this as being one. Excellent!

Joanne said...

Such a great review! I really enjoyed this book more than I had expected to, and I was so surprised at my reaction to the character of Death. I found myself feeling emotionally struck by how sad his existence must be, thinking of how he watches these people from a distance, and must keep himself from becoming attached in any manner. It felt weird but somehow right to sympathize with Death, but I think he was being as good a guy as he could, despite of, or maybe because of, what he was.

Trish said...

Wasn't this such a powerful book? I see that you read it for your book club and I wish that half my members hadn't already read it so that we could read it together. :) Man, you've got me wanting to re-read it NOW! And I loved Death's voice also--really made the story for me.

Alice Teh said...

This is a powerful book and as you've said, one that had me glued to the pages until the end. I'm glad you reviewed it. Thanks!

Andrea said...

I love this book and this is a great review! It's hard to sum up and describe the heart of the book, but you've done a great job of doing that!

Stephanie said...

I've been wanting to read this one for ages but have yet to get to it!! My bad!

Rhinoa said...

I just read this as well and seem to be the only person in the world who hasn't fallen in love with it.