Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Book Review: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

I've put off writing this blog post for almost three years. It's just as well, I suppose, because if I had written it three years ago, it would have been a different post. I would have told you that I loved The Book Thief but it was kind of weird and be sure to give it fifty pages before you give up on it, and did I mention that it's narrated by Death? I did allude to the book briefly on this blog a few times, when I read it in 2007, when I talked about books that made me cry, and when I said it needed its own blog post (this one).

So now that I'm finally writing a review of The Book Thief, what do I say? Well, it was kind of weird and be sure to give it fifty pages before you give up on it, and did I mention that it's narrated by Death? But people, it is no longer adequate to say that I merely love this book. I more than love this book. I read it for the second time a few months ago and solidified its place on the short list of my all-time favorites.

The reason I read it for a second time is because I had started to wonder if it really was as brilliant as I remembered. Some people whose opinions I respect had read it and given it a 'meh' review. When I re-read it and loved it more than ever, I was confused. Were they wrong? Was I wrong?

Then I realized that this is not the kind of book that can be loved by everyone. It seems to me that the "narrated by Death" issue (some would call it a gimmick) is a stumbling block. You either embrace him in that role and go with it, or you are jarred out of the story every time he calls attention to himself, which is often, because he's narrating. Personally, I thought having Death as a narrator was brilliant. It lent depth and humanity to what would otherwise have been only a moderately moving story, unusual perhaps for being told from the German point of view, but nothing more.

I read somewhere that out of all the characters he's written, the author had the hardest time saying goodbye to the people in this book. That's how I feel, too - from time to time I think about them as if they actually existed. I think about the choices they made and the lives they lived and what I might have done had I been in their shoes. I have images from the book in my mind that are almost like real memories of real events, so profoundly did they affect me. I had thought I had read every kind of World War II/Holocaust book there is out there, but The Book Thief is so novel, so genuine, so different.

So I understand if you've read this book and you didn't really like it. That's fine. But if you haven't read it, or you want to give it a second chance (as my dad did, and he can correct me if I'm wrong but I think he liked it more on a second reading), please do. I hope you will find it is the same beautiful, life-affirming book I love so much.

(One last note of interest: in its native Australia, The Book Thief was released as regular old adult fiction. No Young Adult about it. In the US, it is a YA title (and won the YA Printz Award). When I read it for the second time, I paid particular attention to what, specifically, might make this a YA book. And I didn't find anything. In fact, several attributes of The Book Thief recommend it to the adult category of fiction, namely its length, subject matter, complexity, and amount of German swearing. The only thing that puts it even remotely in the YA category is the age of its protagonists. Go figure.)

14 comments:

Liz Johnson said...

I might have to try it again and see if the writing style bugs me less the second time around. I agree that the characters were moving and brilliant, though. And there were parts that were extraordinarily poignant.

Jessie said...

Sorry, I'm one of those 'meh' people. The writing style just didn't impress me (actually it sort of annoyed me), and I found Death's narration to be, yes, gimmicky. And I somewhat agree with the YA categorization simply because of how easy of a read it was. To me it almost read like a blog post - kind of casual (particularly Death's interjections). But I agree completely with Liz - certain parts were just beautiful.

Melody said...

I actually just finished reading this book just a few days ago, and I loved it! It didn't bother me that it was narrated by death. I thought that was kind of clever. When I started reading the book, I had no clue what it was going to be about, but I think it took less than 50 pages before I couldn't put it down. Maybe before I take it back to the library I'll have to read it again if I'll like it more the second time.

Burke family said...

I'm totally with you Bridget! I loved it and am so glad you told me to stick with it long enough. :) I miss the characters too! And I really think the way it was written was just perfect! I will definitely be reading it again, and I'm sure I'll love it even more.

Alyson P. said...

This is one of my favorite books too. I listened to it so maybe the idea of Death as the narrator was easier to accept.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

I can't think of a more appropriate narrator for a book set during WW2 & the Holocaust than Death. The author skillfully portrayed the cruelty & hopelessness of life lived under those circumstances. To me the point of using adolescents as the main characters conveyed the tragedy of the situation-- these young people should have had the carefree existence of youth, but it was anything but carefree.

Andrea said...

I really, really liked the book. It did take me the 50 pages or so to get into the book, but by the end I was amazed that it took me so long to get into it. I thought the author's descriptive language was vivid and beautiful. I truly came to care about the characters and was emotional while reading the end of the book. I'm astounded every time words are able to make me feel such strong emotions and this book did that for me.

David A. Bedford said...

We do ourselves a great disservice by allowing book marketers to determine what "genre" (really they should say "category") a book belongs to. It's for the reades to decide. Or, better, a good book can appeal very widely. Aren't the classics written for adults but read by teenagers in school?

Katie said...

I'm glad for the review, thank you. I started to read the book and only got about 5 pages in before I realized that I may too sensitive for the subject matter to come. Ever since I became a mother I am REALLY sensitive about stuff that never bothered me before.

I'm glad that twice you said to give it 50 pages, so my question to you is, should I give it another try, or is there just a lot of painful death, rape, molestation, torture, etc. Obviously there will be bad stuff, it's a book about the Holocaust, but do you think I could handle it?

Lindsay Gunnell said...

I'm so excited to read this book, so I'm really glad for your review. Have you read Markus Zusak's other really popular book, "I am the Messenger?" I fell in love with that one too.

Craig said...

I did enjoy it more the 2nd read (actually, listen). I had too many distractions and I was sick during the first read. Since I speak German and lived there two years I enjoyed that aspect. The death narrator was clever and interesting. I do like it and recommend it, but not as enthusiastically as you.

Amanda said...

One of my favorite books too! I wrote a review/recommendation for the "Staff Picks" shelf while working for PCPL. My boss was pretty perturbed when he saw it was YA but I promised him adults would like it too. I'm glad you agree.

Bridget said...

Katie, for a book about the Holocaust, there are shockingly few disturbing things that happen in it. In fact, I can't think of anything about the book that disturbed me. Haunted, moved, yes, but disturbed, no. Do you see the difference?

Tim said...

I really liked this book too. It took me a while to get into it, but luckily I was listening to it on CD and I am more forgiving with audio than textual. I think it ended up in one of my top 10 favorite fiction list.

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