Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Book Thief: Review

Author: Markus Zusak
Genre: Fiction, historical fiction, young adult
Pages: 560
Originally published in: 2005

By now the majority of us have heard about The Book Thief and a big chunk of people have already reviewed it, too.  An instant bestseller, followed up by the usual adaptation for the big screen, The Book Thief is still enjoying a massive worldwide following…

He stood a few metres from the step and spoke with great conviction, great joy.
‘Alles is Scheisse,’ he announced. All is shit.*

First of all, I will have to start with the fact that the book is narrated by Death. But of course you already know that as this is the first thing every review on The Book Thief starts up with. Also, the book is centred on a young German girl – Liesel Meminger – who is being separated from her mother and sent to a foster family in Molching, Germany. The year is 1939 and Europe is at war, while Liesel gets used to living with the Hubermanns, consisting of Rosa Hubermann, whose main characteristic is that her favourite two words are Saumensch and Saukerl (they literary stand for the German words for female pig and male pig, but are basically curse words, so you catch the drift); and of Hans Hubermann, the loving accordionist. Anything else you need to know plotwise? As Death conveniently points out at the beginning of the book: “Death will visit the book thief three times.” To be honest, considering these are war times, you could be surprised s/he did not visit her more (dark humour, I apologise).

All in all, The Book Thief follows how Liesel settles in her new home in Molching during the Second World War, but it also reflects on the way people were living during that dark period in human history. So, apart from the usual adventures in which young adult heroes get involved in (such as Liesel and her best friend Rudy Steiner stealing apples), there are also scenes including fanatical Germans and hiding Jews. Of course, a main point to the book is how Liesel turns into a book thief and why she turns into one.

Usually I am not into young adult literature. Maybe because I do not like my books to come with an age-specific sticker on them, but mostly due to the fact that YA doesn’t have the same appeal to me any longer (I mean, when you can dive deep into Dostoevsky, why wasting time with vampires and confused teenagers?). However, The Book Thief is one of those books that do not really carry that same “age-specific” feeling to them and can be enjoyed without thinking of it as a YA.

“In years to come, he would be a giver of bread, not a stealer – proof again of the contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water.”

Anyway, on to the specifics.  There are quite a lot of things that make The Book Thief a good novel and it is easy to see why it became a bestseller. Personally, I think its main advantage is that it paints a fuller picture of the life of the Germans in Nazi Germany. Do not get me wrong, it is not a historical piece that gives you all the proper details of Germans’ daily lives. As a fictional piece it has definitely benefited from Zusak’s imagination. What I am trying to say is that it is nice to read about well-known events from a different perspective.

Usually WWII novels focus on the more obvious victims – the Jews on the run, the occupied French, the soldiers in Stalingrad, the separated love-birds, etc. As a result, the other victims – those who are largely seen as the oppressors – only get to be the bad guys, save for a few characters here and there who happen to be hiding people on the run. In The Book Thief the main characters are German – breathing, living Germans whose lives were not made easy just because they were living in the Fuhrer’s state. The book manages to illustrate what an important decision people were making by joining the NSDAP – looking at it from afar we are used to seeing everything back then in black and white. As the book shows all the consequences that come by not supporting the party, it becomes clear that whatever people decided for themselves, it was a very conscious decision indeed.

This is mostly in the adult world of The Book Thief but the little thief group Liesel and Rudy join makes up for a good case study on the German nation back in the day, too. As the group needs a new leader to follow, once the old one has left, and no one, as an individual, has what it takes to take the place of a leader, it becomes clear that they are a microcosm of the state: “They liked to be told, and Victor Chemmel liked to be the teller.” Victor on the other hand possesses of the charisma a leader needs, much like the infamous leader of Germany: “…he also possessed a certain charisma, a kind of ‘follow me.’” Looking at those children, it feels like one is looking at their parents and at their choices. After all, this is a well summed up description of how the collective mind tends to work.

Finally, the books. This is where my disappointment came and slapped me in the face. I do not want to spoil anything for you but Liesel does not end up stealing an awful lot of books! Given the fact that this is the title of the novel, I expected more – I was looking forward to finding out what kinds of books she was stealing, what she was learning from them, and of course finding out if I have read any of the mentioned books. I was looking forward to the adventure, to the tons of books The Thief was stealing, the appetite he had for them – I was expecting a book after a book after a book. Instead I got a Liesel that kept rereading the same three books over and over again (and no, I haven’t read The Grave Diggers Handbook, thank you very much).

I loved Markus Zusak’s writing style and I loved the story. The characters I loved also. What I did not love is how Death had to go around, hitting me with massive spoilers in the face. Yes, I get it, I know this is a narrative tool and it is nothing new under the sun. But come on, what happened to the good old surprise ending? Having a narrator who likes to tell you or foreshadow everything way in advance, is not exactly my cup of tea, and I think if Zusak stayed away from this, The Book Thief’s ending would have had an even greater impact on its readers.  Having said that, I did enjoy the book immensely and I read it quite fast as I found it pretty addicting. Lovely read, will recommend. 

Have you read The Book Thief yourself? Hope you enjoyed my review, I tried to change it up a bit so it is different from every other review on the book, by focusing on a few key points. Let me know what you think!

*You did not expect this quote, did you?

No comments :

Post a Comment