The Book Thief – a review

Last month, I found my reading had a theme – Books – and that began with  Rachel Caine’s Ink and Bone, which I reviewed on July 23rd.

Now I have finished The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which I review below, but I lied when I said, “I don’t intend to move on from there to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451…” That’s my current read, but I promise a change of direction next time.

However, it was weird to stumble on a short by Kristine Kathryn Rusch that echoed that book theme, burning books, and the Library of Alexandra. If you can find it, The Midbury Lake Incident is part of the Uncollected Anthology Magical Libraries.

Anyway, all this synchronicity is giving me goose-bumps. But then Death was a quirky character in Jackie Moore Kessler’s Hunger, and now in The Book Thief, the narrator is Death with opinions and frailties.

So before I give my latest review, and as we are on the subject of reviews, I came across this topical post: http://terrytyler59.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/augustreviews-because-every-little-helps.html

 

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The Book Thief

by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak was the best-selling debut literary novel of the year 2007, selling over 400,000 copies. The author is a prize-winning writer of children’s books, and this, his first novel for adults, proved to be a triumphant success. The book is extraordinary on many levels: moving, yet restrained, angry yet balanced — and written with the kind of elegance found all too rarely in fiction these days. The book’s narrator is nothing less than Death itself, regaling us with a remarkable tale of book burnings, treachery and theft. The book never forgets the primary purpose of compelling the reader’s attention, yet which nevertheless is able to impart a cogent message about the importance of words, particularly in those societies which regard the word as dangerous (the book is set during the Nazi regime, but this message is all too relevant in many places in the world today).
Nine-year-old Liesel lives with her foster family on Himmel Street during the dark days of the Third Reich. Her Communist parents have been transported to a concentration camp, and during the funeral for her brother, she manages to steal a macabre book: it is, in fact, a gravediggers’ instruction manual. This is the first of many books which will pass through her hands as the carnage of the Second World War begins to hungrily claim lives. Both Liesel and her fellow inhabitants of Himmel Street will find themselves changed by both words on the printed page and the horrendous events happening around them.

I have no hesitation in standing alongside those readers that loved this book. Words are important to me as a writer and a reader, so I could feel for the title character, Liesel, and for all those swept in different directions by the power of the word.

On the one hand, the novel shows how easily the sweet insidious words of Hitler could sway so many ordinary people. Most of the characters are German citizens reacting like so many of us do…with knee-jerk responses. Life goes on. It’s too easy to sit back and then realise too late what is really going on. Sadly, just glancing at current politics, we haven’t learnt from those dark days.

On the other hand, words are the beacon of hope for Liesel and others. Books create possibilities, whether classics or stories written on the paint covered pages of Mein Kampf. They inspire.

“When she came to write her story, she would wonder when the books and the words started to mean not just something, but everything.”

Although the Holocaust is building in the background, and the plight of one particular Jew, Max, touches Liesel and our lives, this is a novel about the way that German people reacted to the events at that time. Markus Zusak might be Australian but his mother Lisa is originally from Germany and his father Helmut is from Austria. So they would have known about those times, and having had German friends, I know that the perspective of the citizens was similar to what Liesel experienced. And this novel is from the viewpoint of a child – well except for when Death paints the darker aspects of events, as he/it is always there, especially when the atrocities happen or a child dies senselessly.

Death is a tragic narrator, struggling to understand humanity and trying to take a caring approach to a distasteful job, because “even death has a heart”.

“Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up each soul that day as if it were newly born. I even kissed a few weary, poisoned cheeks. I listened to their last, gasping cries. Their vanishing words. I watched their love visions and freed them from their fear.”

Death’s observations enhance the unfolding story, and in places Death gets the best lines:

“The question is, what color will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying?”

And then says, “I am haunted by Humans.” And Death is drawn to Liesel’s story in which there are so many rich characters, from Papa to Rudy Steiner to the Mayor’s Wife, and so many others.

In fact, there was so much to love, from poetic passages and images, to emotion wringing incidents, that I must re-read “The Book Thief”.

The final words must be Liesel’s, and to discover more pick up the novel.

“Sometimes I think my papa is an accordion. When he looks at me and smiles and breathes, I hear the notes.”

 

 

 

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7 thoughts on “The Book Thief – a review

  1. I have heard that some people hated it for one reason or another. I haven’t read it yet, but I own the movie and have been so moved by it. This is on my TBR list. So I plan to read it sometime. Maybe next year.

    • There are some negative reviews on Goodreads, for various reasons – from the role of Death to the way the Jewish crisis is not centre-stage. I’m sure if you were moved by the movie, then you would react in similar way to book; although the film trims the plot for obvious reasons.

    • There are mixed reviews, yes. It depends if you like the unusual perspective of death, and the lack of the horror in some books about the Holocaust. This is more subtle given the theme. If need be, check out other reviews on Goodreads or Amazon.

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