Thursday, 2 January 2014

Book Review: The Book Thief

Title: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Year Published: 2005
Genre: Historical fiction, Young adult

Set in Nazi Germany, The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a German girl who goes to live in the fictional town of Molching after being fostered to new parents. It’s a Holocaust bildungsroman that’s proven massively popular, so much so that it’s now also a movie, coming soon to a cinema near you.

The first thing you notice about the book is the writing style. Death serves as the narrator, and in addition to the story proper, we occasionally get Death’s commentary, which comes in the form of asides.

~* An Illustration of what I mean *~
This is what Death’s commentary looks like in the book.
Passages like this interrupt everything and they’re everywhere.
Just everywhere.
Is ‘commentary’ even the right word?

Extensive use of imagery pervades the novel and the prose itself can be rather stylised. For the most part, it’s very readable, but now and then you get the feeling that words and phrases were carefully chosen and polished for maximum poetic effect.

~* A Sample of Mr Zusak’s Writing, taken from Page Fourteen *~
“For hours, the sky remained a devastating, home-cooked red. The small German town had been flung apart one more time. Snowflakes of ash fell so lovelily you were tempted to stretch out your tongue to catch them, taste them. Only, they would have scorched your lips. They would have cooked your mouth.”

It’s a very quirky style and it demands to be noticed. Its popularity with readers is understandable: it’s unique, it’s lyrical and it has that lush quality about it. However, I personally was put off by the self-consciousness of it all; it just wasn’t to my taste.

~* Heck, here’s another, this time from Page Three Hundred and Eighty-two *~
“At times, in the basement, she woke up tasting the sound of the accordion in her ears.”
There are more like this, but I can’t be bothered finding them.
You get the gist.

Most of the time, the style is relatively simple and neutral, but every so often some particularly ~poetic phrase comes along and takes you out of the story and into the mechanics of the writing. In these cases, the language and format feel particularly clumsy and childish, kind of like something a teenager would write (no offence to the Rimbauds out there). For these reasons, I also wasn’t entirely convinced by Zusak’s portrayal of Death as an entity. Having Death narrate your story is a brave choice, but I’m not sure it’s one the author pulled off.

~* Oh, and the German *~
Another minor problem I had was with the use of German words. They were sometimes translated into English and sometimes not. This just left me confused as to whether I was supposed to know the meanings of all the German words to properly read this book.

For a novel entitled The Book Thief, I expected more books and more thievery than what there actually is. Instead, the main concern of the book is Liesel’s day-to-day life, full of childhood adventure, schoolyard fights and nostalgia. We have the kind father, the shouty but loving mother, the boy who loves you and the enemy neighbour. They’re the ingredients for a slice-of-life sort of tale, and while there is nothing wrong with this – indeed, I liked it  – I believe that the title and blurb of The Book Thief give the impression that the story is a lot more epic than it actually is. So if you’re after an ‘exciting’ Holocaust novel, this probably isn’t the book for you.

On that note, one thing that irked me was the somewhat facile treatment of the historical context. Now, perhaps it’s because the first pieces of Holocaust fiction I read were The Reader and Maus, but I found this book to be almost insultingly simple. While this may all be very well for a middle grade or (young) young adult reader (a story where Germans are the good guys? woah!), I would have liked more complexity all around. The characters are all pretty much either good or evil and what little exploration of moral issues there is seems rather shallow. For example, consider ‘The World Shaker’ (which, bizarrely, is printed in tiny, hard-to-read font), a book that features within The Book Thief. Written and illustrated by the persecuted Max, it includes an illustration of a man in The F├╝hrer Shop (page 475) selling containers of “FEAR”, “HATRED” and “small moustaches ½ price”. Now, if this isn’t the stuff of Year 8 Art projects, then I don’t know what is. I know this is classed as a young adult novel, and perhaps I’m being unfair, but I expected, well, more. Like an emo teen’s poetry on the livejournal of yore, The Book Thief isn’t nearly as deep as it wants to be.

~* The Reader and Maus *~
are both excellent books, by the way

(or at least, they were when I read them some ten years ago, wow, crap I’m old.
They’re by Bernhard Schlink and Art Spiegelman respectively.
I’d recommend The Reader if you want a bit more of an exploration into the ‘German side’ of things and I’d recommend Maus (which is a comic) generally, but also as an introduction for those just starting to learn about the Holocaust).

In addition to the pretentious style and the simplification of the context, another thing that irritated me was the ending. Now, we all know that this tale won’t end with flowers and sunshine, but still, it was so sudden and abrupt to the point where it felt almost like laziness. It’s as if the author thought, hmm, crap, how do I end this? Oh, I know! And yet I found myself getting teary-eyed even in my annoyance.

I know this review reads like a litany of complaints, but I did enjoy this novel overall. It’s hard not to feel for – or at least like – Liesel and her family and the other ‘good’ characters. Her coming-of-age in a small town was, as odd as it sounds, a pleasure to read. It’s warm and bittersweet, with a healthy dose of charm. Her relationships, and especially that with her father, shine with a real humanity and sense of love. All in all, there’s such a bright-eyed earnestness about The Book Thief that I couldn’t help but be moved despite all my problems with it.

~* One Last Thing *~
Happy New Year!

Alex’s Rating: 3/5

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