(This review first appeared in February 2007)
Rating:The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. Knopf (2006), 552 pages.
This is the story of a German girl living in a foster family in a working-class town in Germany during World War II. Such a setting encompasses, of course, all of the grand drama you would expect: tragedy, devastation, Nazis, death camps, the insanity of it all. And the little girl herself, the intrepid book thief, is an appealing enough heroine. But the real star of the book is Death, the narrator. It is Death that kept me turning the pages. He has one of the most unique voices I’ve ever come across, at turns sarcastic, compassionate, funny—Death is strangely endearing.
It was a year for the ages, like 79, like 1346, to name just a few. Forget the scythe, Goddamn it, I needed a broom or a mop. And I needed a vacation.
* * * A Small Piece of Truth * * *
I do not carry a sickle or scythe. I only wear a hooded black robe when it’s cold. And I don’t have those skull-like facial features you seem to enjoy pinning on me from a distance. You want to know what I truly look like? I’ll help you out. Find yourself a mirror while I continue.
I actually feel quite self-indulgent at the moment, telling you all about me, me,me. My travels, what I saw in ’42. On the other hand, you’re a human—you should understand self-obsession… There were certainly some rounds to be made that year, from Poland to Russia to Africa and back again. You might argue that I make the rounds no matter what year it is, but sometimes the human race likes to crank things up a little.
They increase the production of bodies and their escaping souls. A few bombs usually do the trick. Or some gas chambers, or the chitchat of faraway guns. If none of that finishes proceedings, it at least strips people of their living arrangements, and I witness the homeless everywhere. They often come after me as I wander through the streets of molested cities. They beg me to take them with me, not realizing I’m too busy as it is. “Your time will come,” I convince them, and I try not to look back. At times I wish I could say something like, “Don’t you see I’ve already got enough on my plate?” but I never do.
I loved this. Death as a narrator was brilliant. The voice of Liesel was perfect. I fell completely in love with Rudy, who of course reminded me of a more grown-up version of my son. The father-daughter relationship was one of the most tenderly and realistically developed I’ve ever read. Having Max paint over Mein Kampf and write his own story on the pages was such a vivid symbol: I was right there with him in the basement, painting, sketching, and willing him to live. It was so beautifully done. Two disappointments: 1. I think the author hit the foreshadowing a little hard and in a slightly corny way at the end of too many chapters. A little too teasy, in my opinion. 2. I was left with lack of closure around Max. Did he and Liesel sustain a relationship? Did he become Liesel’s husband? I cared so much about their platonic love and I didn’t get a sense of how it evolved / resolved.