Custom Search

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Book Thief

Yesterday the postman delivered my latest order from Amazon, which contained, among other things, "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak.

Since it was a rainy day and I was too sick to go out anyway, I started reading it as soon as I put Andrej to bed for his afternoon nap. Roughly five and half hours and 550 pages later I was done and I put it down with mixed feelings.

It's a story about a nine-year old girl who lives with a foster family in a small German town of Molching, on the eve of the WWII. She steals a book after her brother's funeral and so begins her book thievery, her uneasy relationship with written words and her growing up in the midst of one of the most awful periods of modern history.

Her story is narrated by the Death himself, which gives us a unique perspective. He intersperses the narration with his own commentary--sometimes witty and funny, other times a bit awkward, or just off the mark (Talking about the work he had to do after the Battle of Stalingrad: "It was no ski trip, I can tell you." Huh?)

I liked the way Zusak builds the storyline and I definitely don't agree with those reviewers who said the book was boring. It's not, but it does have many flaws and one of the bigger ones, for me, is that his characters are quite stereotypical and two-dimensional. There is not enough life to them so we can't see their motivation, why they do the things they do. Liesel's father is a simple man but with a good heart; her mother is a big and foul-mouthed woman but she too, turns out, has a heart of gold. And the bad guys are very bad, and that's that. This kind of characterization is typical for fairy tales and children's stories but this book is supposed to be for adults so it doesn't work.

I also had an impression that he is using the Nazi Germany settings and references to Hitler and the camps to create shortcuts to powerful emotions that he is not capable of creating by his narrative. It's easy to piggyback on the Holocaust but infinitely more difficult to add value to its story and I don't think Zusak succeeds there. There is certainly potential, and he takes an interesting angle--a German family that helps a Jewish man and suffers consequences--but he can't really decide which story he wants to tell. Is it about suffering of the good Germans, or is it about a little girl discovering life through books, or is it about how difficult it is to be Death?

And there are passages like this one:
"You see, people may tell you that Nazi Germany was built on anti-Semitism, a somewhat overzealous leader and a nation of hate-fed bigots, but it would have all come to nothing had the Germans not loved one particular activity--to burn.

The Germans loved to burn things. Shops, synagogues, Rechstags, houses, personal items, slain people, and, of course, books."
This is not literature. At best it's a history lesson masking as literature and it's completely unnecessary--all of a sudden Death speaks with a voice from the 21st century. Zusak is trying to tell a complex story but with simplistic comments like this he just shoots himself in the foot.

All in all, interesting story and lots of clever devices but Zusak's ability is a poor match for his ambition.

14 comments:

B said...

I've been wanting to read this for a while... now I'm not so sure.
I'm so jealous that you managed to just sit down and read for a whole day. I haven't done that for ages! But of course, it's no good that you were sick. HOpe you are better!

Jelica said...

Thanks, B, I am definitely better today.

The book was recommended by another blogger and then I glanced through Amazon reviews, which were all raving, so I bought it. I don't regret it--the book brought me to tears (which was really useful since I had a blocked nose) and I don't think it's bad, just not great.

Dumdad said...

I enjoyed your take on this book and you make some valid points although I disagree with you generally as I loved the book. However, whether it is a great book depends on your viewpoint and, firstly, define "great"!

Some people think Lord of the Rings (or Lord of the Flies or whatever, take your pick) is great while others think it's a load of old tosh. One man's meat etc...

Jelica said...

I know, it's totally subjective!

I got it after I read your review and, in fact, most people would agree with your take on the book than mine. I'm glad I read it, I just think he could have done certain things better.

Did you know that he is a child of Austrian/German immigrants to Australia? The bits and pieces that he heard from parents and family about the war inspired him to write this book--or so says Wikipedia.

Dumdad said...

Yes, I'd read that about him. God bless Wikipedia!

Delwyn said...

Jelica,
I hope you are coming right today...

It is always good to hear differing opinions on novels. I find that reviews I read in the paper are often skewed and the cover blurbs are definitely designed to sell rather than offer a succinct precis. Sometimes I get to the end of a book and wonder how on earth they came to write the cover blurb that they did as it seems so unrelated or distorted.
I will look closely at this novel before I buy it...

Happy days

Seaside Girl said...

I am really jealous of you reading the book in one sitting. What bliss to sit and read for the day.
I think you make a lot of really good points (although I loved the book). It's a really good cross over book for adults/teenagers. I gave it to eldest daughter to read and we enjoyed being able to talk about it together. Same thing for "Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas" which was her choice.
"The Book Theif" is our city read in Brighton this month. We have lots of events and talks on about it.

Seaside Girl said...

"i" before "e" except after "c".

"thief"

Derrrr....

Jelica said...

Seaside Girl--"The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas" is often mentioned when people talk about "The Book Thief," sometimes as an example of a better work, other times just as part of the same thematic group. Would you recommend it?

Jelica said...

Delwyn, you definitely have to take the cover blurbs with a grain of salt. I always read them but more to get an idea of the plot than to get a judgment on the quality of the book.

Seaside Girl said...

The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas - yes yes yes to a recommendation. You will read it in one go. I thought it was very clever (yet very, very simple) and extremely moving. Ok stuck neck on line now. Hope you agree. x

Jelica said...

Very well, it's on my list for the next Amazon order!

julochka said...

thanks for this...i keep picking that one up in the bookstores and putting it back down, but was likely to succumb to it soon. now i'll choose something else. :-)

Elitza said...

How serendipitous! I just randomly picked The Book Thief from the shelf the other day. I bought it some time ago prompted by the same raving reviews on Amazon, and last week finally decided to get to it. Unlike you, I had no patience to read it off. I like your points though. Here is my modest post on the text: http://mynightstand.blogspot.com/2009/06/how-in-world-did-i-get-again-into.html