Sunday, April 18, 2010

Book Review: The Book Thief

I have decided to start writing book reviews on this blog. As a student of literature in college, I only had to write a couple of reviews, churning out instead precis and essays and research papers one capstone and one unfinished thesis. I only sometimes regret never finishing that thesis, but the time has past now.

So, in an attempt to challenge my writing skills and to return to something I once loved to do (writing about books), I am going to write reviews of books as I read them. I won't be writing about the newest or best sellers, unless coincidentally, because that's not how I choose what to read. But, I do promise to try and avoid the essay style of writing I am so practiced at. I may not succeed, but I'll try.

 The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, was a book selection for my book club, a book club I rarely attend because I'm always reading something different. But in the rare case I've read the same book, I love to go and be the nerd of the group. They let me have my 5 minutes of literary dorkiness and discuss allusions and symbolism and denouement. And then I enjoy their humor and wit and delicious food of course. And all is right in the world.

Truth be told, this novel is a "Young Adult" book. But, I think that's all phooey. That's a category to get young people to read and that's all well and good. But this book is insightful and profound and I believe that translates to young and slightly more seasoned readers alike.

This selection was chosen by my lovely coworker Coco and I trust her taste, so I picked it up and then proceeded to devour this book at a very steady pace. See, I think how you read one book over another says a lot about its style. Some books you tear through, others you savor, others you wade through waist-high sand, page by page, tempted to pop your eyes out to make it stop. The Book Thief was a piece of work rife different tempos, which was intriguing, to say the least. At times, I felt I needed to savor a line, a passage, a page. And at others, I simply needed to know what would happen next, speed reading until the crucial information or moment might reveal itself. I utterly enjoyed reading it.

It must be mentioned that I was not crazy about the narrator at the start. I don't think I'll reveal too much by mentioning that the novel takes place in Nazi Germany and the narrator is Death. Death itself. Himself. Whatever. He doesn't name himself, but it becomes clear very early on who this figure is and what he does. And contrariwise, our heroine is a young girl. So, at first I didn't think that these two disparate figures would work. However, Death has a sympathy and what I would describe as an involuntary and fascinated draw to young Liesel Meminger and eventually those who become her family.

Actually, the more I think about it, it's quite revolutionary, the narrator of a novel set amongst the Nazis being Death itself. I've heard this book compared to the Diary of Anne Frank , a book I read over and over throughout my childhood, but I don't think the comparison is accurate. While our heroine is much like Anne, a young girl on the brink of womanhood and a perilous time in history, learning to love books and language and writing, though she is not Jewish, she is not the teller of this tale. And no fictional character, in all fairness, can ever be Anne Frank, can ever tell in utter honesty, the same things as a girl who once existed in flesh and blood. I don't believe so anyway.

More poignantly, our narrator does not participate in history except to ferry away the souls left in the wake of what we all know occurred in Germany at that time. Who better to witness? Who better to subtly accuse? When Death conveys emotion, it's entirely more moving.

It is also worth mentioning that the prose is thoroughly delicious. Zusak has a way of creating imagery and metaphor in surprising and new ways. Images therefore,  seem to unexpectedly appear, making something ugly or disparaging somehow lovely or profound. In this way, Zusak tiptoes you through this decidedly terrifying subject and pulls you along, steadily plunging you deeper and deeper into the novel and, before you know it, you're immersed in the beauty, the despair, the love, the regret, the raw emotion that only exists at the very heart of these characters, of Liesel herself.

It's a rare thing to tell a story such as this one so deftly. When I read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, I remember feeling so shocked and jarred. Now, this is the Holocaust and one should feel shocked and jarred. But, and I admit that the main character was much younger than Liesel, you practically frolic though that book and just when you're at the end, having gained more and more reservations as the story progresses, you are tossed into the worst possible horror imaginable. I sobbed at the end. Sobbed out loud with gunk running out of my nose and tears drowning my shirt, ghastly sounds uttering from the depths of my soul. I terrified my cats and probably concerned my neighbors more than a little.

Please don't misunderstand me, I had tears several times throughout The Book Thief, but because Zusak had maneuvered me so carefully through the story, I expected my tears when they came. I never felt slapped in the face by this novel, backhanded by its events. I felt immersed in it, pulled by it, wholly involved in its plot and pages and prose (sorry, I can never resist alliteration).

If I may, before I leave this novel and find a place for it amongst my many other books in my little home, I'd like to share one small passage. It's indescribably sad, but delicately told. I adore when the line is blurred between prose and poetry.

"So many humans.
        So many colors.

They keep triggering inside me. They harass my memory. I see them tall in their heaps, all mounted on top of each other. There is air like plastic, a horizon like setting glue. There are skies manufactured by people, punctured and leaking, and there are soft, coal-colored clouds, beating like black hearts.
        And then.
        There is death.
        Making his way through all of it.
        On the surface: unflappable, unwavering.
        Below: unnerved, untied, and undone."

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