Published by Knopf on 18th December 2007
Genres: Fantasy, Historical, Young Adult
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It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.
By her brother's graveside, Liesel Meminger's life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is "The Grave Digger's Handbook," left there by accident, and it is her first act of thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordion-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor's wife's library, wherever there are books to be found.
But these are dangerous times. When Liesel's foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel's world is both opened up and closed down.
The subject matter of The Book Thief is heavy. So, so heavy. And so one has to wonder how best to address it.
Zusak has crafted a story of words, a tale of the weight that such innocuous shapes can have. He writes with a love of the letter that the bibliophile can appreciate, and his characters, too, display an adoration and respect for the power of writing that readers can immediately relate to.
Letters in their endless permutations have almost a physical presence within this novel, and it’s a fascinating thing to witness. These individuals do not simply say or whisper their dialogue. Rather, they employ them as concrete objects to be handled with care. Zusak repeatedly describes conversation as exchanges being flung, dropped, and placed. Words are the world, and must be pieced together responsibility. Because once they are let loose, there is no taking them back, and their impact is enduring.
The approach can be attributed partially, of course, to the unique ghoulishness of The Book Thief‘s narrator, incorporeal and transcendental as he is. Having a story of the Holocaust be told by Death: Clever or distasteful? I haven’t the authority to answer such a question, nor do I think that there is a definite response to it. Personally, I found it an intriguing approach, from the easy malleability with which he treats time, to his detailing of the metaphysics of death and the human soul, to his gentle arrogance towards the limits of the reader and the things that one cannot possibly know. It’s different, it’s odd, and it worked for me.
And yet, as with everything in this novel, it may very well not do the same for you. Because what can be assuredly said for a story that takes artistic license with one of the greatest tragedies in human history? Certainly, the tale is a touching one, and its characters are capably drawn:
Liesel is compelling and likeable at the forefront, real in a powerful way. Hans and Rosa are both inspiring as loyal guardians and loving familial figures. Max displays a sweetness and compassion that makes his and Liesel’s relationship a thing of joy and comfort. Tommy provides a humor and buoyancy that brightens the gloom of Nazi Germany and the grimness of its oppressive atmosphere.
As we watch Liesel grow, as a stealer of books and as a girl of unlikely circumstance, the story darkens and grows taught, but keeps intact the beauty inherent to the characters and the ways in which they interact. There is love and kindness in these unassuming people, and a tremendous courage in the face of hopeless odds and insurmountable opposition. Zusak makes these otherwise small lives extraordinary against a backdrop of unimaginable magnitude, and so their comings and goings are infused with an aura of devastation and despair regardless of what they may be doing.
Because we know, even if Liesel does not.
And so we have a story that uses real-world genocide as a means of creating drama with fabricated faces and selling a manuscript for the enjoyment of the masses. How does one take that? After all, this book does not strive for strict realism. From its macabre storyteller to its simplifying of the cast to the basics of the “good vs. evil” archetype, it is clear fiction that exploits, regardless of authorial intention, the complexities and horrors of millions. Is it a call to remember the evils that humanity is capable of, lest history repeat itself? To understand the selflessness that these selfsame creatures can show? Is it a cash-grab using a premise that is known to sell, helped along by the gimmicky exploitation of a unique narrator that – let’s be honest, here – was ultimately not necessary?
Because, really, the lack of linearity and the waxing poetic of the passing of souls is not strictly integral to telling this narrative of a girl and her books. Death’s consistent critique of the human race is preachy, and is required only due to the otherworldliness of the character. And outright telling us of the deaths of certain individuals may seem like some kind of clever manipulation of the typical writing process, but can also function baldly as an obvious attempt to manipulate the reader’s feelings.
That is what ultimately makes me wonder. All storytelling is manipulation, but when it is done clearly – and, truly, at all – with the very real tragedies of the past, the practice feels a sordid one, and things become murky indeed. Profit from pain, in the end.
For all of that, though, The Book Thief is at its core a story, and it is a good one. It touched me despite its unsettling context and emotional puppetry. Zusak is an adept writer who uses words to great effect, and I love what he has done here.
I simply do not know what to do with that opinion. Because the question remains: What can, and should, be taken away from a book with such a context?
I am at a loss.
The Book Thief is an excellent book in its own right, well-written and telling a beautiful story. But what to make of it in regards to its place, fictional though it may be, in history?
I am simply offering my thoughts on the matter. I do not claim to be some expert upon the subject who has provided here an argument to be taken to heart by those who read it. I am wondering aloud inquisitives that like as not do not have a clear solution. Perhaps that marks this as excellent literature. Perhaps it does not. All that I can know for certain is that it makes it an important one, for better or for worse.