Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Review of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005, Random House)

Liesel is nine years old when her mother journeys south to near Munich to leave her with her new foster parents. On the way her brother dies, which is the first time Death sees her. At the funeral she steals The Gravedigger’s Handbook from one of the attendees, despite the fact that she cannot read. Her new papa is a kindly accordion player and her new mother a bit of a battle-axe. She quickly makes friends with the other children on Himmel Street, especially Rudy, though her time at school is a bit more fraught. Each night she has nightmares and when she wakes her new papa helps her learn how to read. She steals a book from a pile being burned by the local Nazis and from the library of the mayor’s wife. As the Second World War progresses her new family hides a Jew, Max, in the basement and he creates a new book for her. Sworn to secrecy, Liesel helps to keep Max alive. She steals food from local farms, shelters from bombs in a neighbours shelter, and watches Jews be marched to the local concentration camp. She hopes the war will end soon, but Death will see Liesel two more times.

The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel, a child growing up in Nazi Germany and her experiences throughout the war, as narrated by Death who has taken the book she wrote during the period and is fascinated by it. Her communist parents have been sent to a concentration camp and she taken in by foster parents. She’s illiterate but decides she wants to learn to read and is helped by her kindly new father, sourcing new books by stealing them. As the war progresses she helps to shelter a Jew and resists the regime in quiet and sometimes open ways along with her friend, Rudy. Zuzak tells the story almost as a fairy tale, with Liesel traversing ups and downs, adventure and danger, punctuated by facts and observations by Death. However, while the punctuations add a bit of liveliness to story, the telling otherwise felt a little flat and even. And while the story is interesting enough, there is no sense of mystery and the edges are shorn from the danger moments as the narrator consistently telegraphs to the reader how the story will unfold. The result is a story that, for me at least, didn’t quite achieve the emotional resonance it might have, but is nonetheless a thoughtful read.