Thursday, September 27, 2007

review: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

Before going any further, let’s just get one thing out of the way: Damn Nazis! Okay, now that’s out of my system, I can discuss things a little more rationally.

It was The Book Thief’s title and cover that made me pick it up, and it was the subject matter and award on the cover that made me buy it. It was the writing, though, that made me finish the almost-600 pages in just three days.

Starting with The Devil’s Arthimetic, Summer of My German Soldier, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Number the Stars and moving through Survival in Auschwitz and Night, I have been fascinated by novels or memoirs that take place during World War II for most of my life, particularly those that focus on Nazi-Germany. The Book Thief has earned a permanent place on my bookshelf.

Though The Book Thief takes place in Nazi Germany during the early 1940s, there is no Nazi villain at center stage. Rather, it is the aftershocks of usually faraway war and the behaviors of neighbors that ripple through this quiet German town. The book focuses on the lives of non-Jewish Germans during the war: the terror, the pressure to join the Nazi Party, the starvation, the shame of living only miles from Dachau, the humiliation. But also, it shows hope and love and kindness and words and music in the midst of the bleakness.

Told from the point-of-view of Death, the opening sequences are like poetry, in prose form. The descriptions, the turning of phrases on their ends, the colors, it all comes together to create an atmosphere of reading. The words are almost characters themselves.

After the introductory remarks from Death, the story begins with illiterate nine-year-old Liesel, the book thief herself, on a train with her mother and younger brother. The threesome is on their way to Himmel Street in a town near Munich to deliver Liesel and the boy to foster parents. Her brother ominously coughs once on the train and dies. At the gravesite, one of the gravediggers drops a book, and Liesel steals it. She lands on Himmel Street sans brother but with her book. The next four years of Liesel’s life on Himmel Street are chronicled in some of the most beautiful language I’ve ever read.

Warning: though this is touted as a young-adult book there is quite a sprinkling of swearing. Much of it, though, is in German, which tends to soften the blow for me. Another thought: normally, I get irritated with authors for sticking in random foreign words that I can’t understand, but Zusak manages to keep the reader in the know while infusing the book with German.

Markus Zusak (via Death) presents the beauty and the ugly of humans without preaching, without a solution, but with wonder and awe.


blakecgriffin said...

You talk real pretty. You alost convinced me to read the book! I have to say though, I find Holocaust books dreadfully boring.

blakecgriffin said...

Time for a new blog!