Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: A Review

I first read Markus Zusak's The Book Thief seven years ago, directly after it was first released in the US.  I had never heard of Zusak at the time, so it was pure coincidence that I decided to pick the book up at all.  It was on display at a local Barnes & Noble as I was buying a coffee.  I liked the cover art (domino edition) and read the inside cover flap.  Hmmm...I thought, so I bought it and a few days later read the first chapter on a whim (without any real intention of diving in as I had any number of other books clamoring for my attention).

Three days later I emerged from Zusak's color-laden pages, bathed in tears and with a heart swollen to the size of a hearse.  I can think of few other novels that have ever affected me in quite an intense and emotional manner.

But I'll stop there and back up, because I think some context for a review is in order.

I recently selected The Book Thief as the October reading for my fantasy book group.  To begin with, this novel has very little fantasy about it, but I'll be damned if that was going to stop me.

It is narrated by a comical, lovable, anthopomorphic Death.  So it's fantasy.  I won't be naysayed on this.  It's also great book for discussion, and we have an eclectic group of readers in my group who can bring some interesting perspectives on both the historical and literary viewpoints of the novel.

Also - for those who live beneath a rock like I do - there's a movie coming out.  What better time to get others to pick up the book first?  A movie changes the perception of a book (for better or worse) forever.  I wanted a second reading without a changed perception, or at least not one beyond the change in myself over the intervening years.

So, The Book Thief, take two.

I found I hadn't remembered the details precisely, but my second experience with the book was every bit as moving as it had been the first time.  I must admit, Death is a bit overweening at first.  He inserts himself too powerfully - and at times too flippantly - into the narrative.  But that fades, and the story comes into focus.

The first and greatest of the novel's many assets is the characters.  Liesel leaps off the page - an orphaned girl in Nazi Germany, thrown in with poor foster parents.  Her foster mother is frightening, cantankerous, and foul-mouthed.  Hans Hubermann, her foster father, takes shape slowly, and before you realize it you are every bit as enamored with him as Liesel.  Rudy Steiner, the neighbor boy with the "lemon-colored hair", whose greatest desire is a kiss from Liesel, and whose heart is larger than Himmel Street itself.  Max Vandenberg, the Mein Kampf-toting Jewish refugee with hair like feathers and a gift for handmade stories.  Even Rosa Hubermann herself, rough-tongued and fierce, finds a way into the reader's heart.

There's little real suspense.  Death gives you the penultimate scenes right up front.  This is how it will happen, he says (there was some discussion in our group over Death's actual gender, but I refer to Death as he only for convenience's sake).  Surprisingly, that doesn't make it any less affecting to the reader.

The Book Thief reminds me in many respects of a landscape or urban photograph in sepia tones - browns, ochres, grays, khakis - with a few punches of vibrant color made all the brighter by the contrast to the surrounding landscape.  This is true of the visuals in general, but to a larger degree of the personalities and souls of those those Himmel Street denizens that inhabit the Nazi landscape of aggression and hate.

This is a novel of one of the darkest periods in human history.  It sets itself in the center of that poison, spreading outward across Europe like a plague, and yet it balances that blackness perfectly.  There is beauty and horror in almost equal parts, and the horror only increases the poignancy of the beauty.

Zusak's writing - his imagery and metaphors - encompasses this balance beautifully.

"The last time I saw her was red.  The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring.  In some places, it was burned.  There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness."

"When he turned on the light in the small, callous washroom that night, Liesel observed the strangeness of her foster father's eyes.  There were made of kindness, and silver.  Like soft silver, melting.  Liesel, upon seeing those eyes, understood that Hans Hubermann was worth a lot."

His writing can also deliver a quick, debilitating punch to the gut:

"Summer came.
For the book thief, everything was going nicely.
For me, the sky was the color of Jews."

I almost don't know how to wrap up my thoughts on this novel into a neat package.  It encapsulates mankind - "pity this busy monster..." - and it brings into focus the power of words.  Words incited the madness that was Nazi Germany.  It was Mein Kampf and "heil Hitler" and shouted oratory and Joseph Goebbel's poisonous propaganda.  It is also words - stolen words, Max's words, Hans' words, even the book thief's own - that carry Liesel through.  They are powerful, and carry within them the seeds of both our destruction and our hope.

This book is painful, rich, impactful, and incredibly beautiful.  I cant' recommend it highly enough.  It is the type of novel that can change a reader's perspective on life afterwards.  The novels that can claim that are few and far between.  I can only hope the movie does justice to the book.  Geoffrey Rush will play the role of Hans Hubermann, and for small kindnesses such as that we can be thankful.

I'll finish up with the words of Death, as they seem so fitting:

Come with me and I'll tell you a story.
I'll show you something. 


  1. Thanks for this, Adam. It's on my Christmas list. Your discussion group sounds interesting too.

    1. You're welcome, Mike. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. As readers, we find too many books that go through the motions. They tell a story. They have characters that we care about to greater or lesser degrees. A rare few may even keep us up past our bedtime, hoping to find out what happens next. Even of those that do, only a very few have real heart in the sense that this book does.

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  3. There are so many things to like about this book that it's hard to be succinct. But I will try to bring out some of the things that I found most wonderful about this book.
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  4. A delightfully human book, haunting, wise and joyous by turn. I don't know why I waited so long to read it.

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