The Book Thief by Markus Zusak has been praised for being an innovative experimental novel. I’m not so sure. But its popularity, an upcoming film adaptation and the intriguing quality of using Death as a narrator was enough to see this book jump ahead in my reading queue. While you should not necessarily buy the hype, it does offer value for readers who will enjoy it for what it is.
Removed from her parents in Nazi Germany, for reasons connected to an unfamiliar word – Kommunist – Liesel Meminger and her brother are put into a foster home with Hans Hubermann and his foul-mouthed wife Rosa.
Her brother does not survive the trip.
At his burial, Liesel steals a book from one of the gravediggers. Illiterate, reading the book is the beginning of Liesel’s education, her bonding with her stepfather and her introduction to the world of words, books, stories and their power, especially as the Nazis seem so keen on burning them.
Hans, a painter who used to have many Jewish clients, is not especially popular with the local Nazis or his enthusiastically Nazi son. He can’t find any affinity with Nazi philosophy, especially as his life was saved by a Jew in the First World War. When Max, the son of that man, arrives on his doorstep seeking protection, Hans never considers refusing, no matter the danger to his family.
The hype around this book was/is huge. There is the use of Death as narrator; themes of the power of books, storytelling and words; the young girl protagonist; Nazis – still the safest choice in fiction for the unquestionably, universally, bad guys; and somewhere within that, the real story of the Jewish fist-fighter hiding in the girl’s basement.
Death as narrator – genius or gimmick?
The difficulty in choosing Death as a narrator is defining the kind of being he is. Does he sense and perceive reality in the same way we do? Does he obey the same parameters of space, time and causality? Is he conscious, sentient? Does he have a memory, thoughts, knowledge, emotions? Is he omniscient? Is he omnipresent?
The Death Zusak imagines is somewhat ordinary. He seems to have most of the faculties humans have, not many they don’t and at least understands emotions if not capable of experiencing them completely. Given that, where is the deep wisdom from eons of thought and reflection? Where is the insight from centuries of observing the human condition? It isn’t really there.
Death in The Book Thief, does not really add much to the story or the telling of it, nor is he a character that generates much interest. In theory he knows the story from a diary left by Liesel but really he is an omniscient narrator, not much different to any other in any other story. There was great scope here but it was not fully explored. Conclusion: gimmick, not genius.
As for the rest – the grand themes, the girl protagonist, etc – these are not new and this book is not a great exponent of them. The central plot of the fate of Max needed to be the focus and needed more to it to make the book more engrossing. It does redeem itself somewhat in the end – the last sections of the book go some way to delivering the emotional climax you want from such a story. The format of the novel includes notes and asides, but it is hard to see the value of it to the storytelling, again more gimmick than genius. The writing is not necessarily poor, but is not excellent either, it lacks style of any distinction. The appeal of the themes demanded something more poetic, more literary or at least more clever.
I’m glad I didn’t buy the hype surrounding this novel. If I had I might be disappointed by it. Instead I think it is a fair book, worth a read, but not a great one. Its main strength being that the story does eventually come together nicely in the end. Its main weakness is its ability to drive the reader to that point. It is certainly ambitious in concept, but in breadth it loses density. Fans have described it as innovative and experimental. I don’t agree, it had the potential to be quite literary, but is pretty much just pop fiction.
The reason this novel jumped a long way up my reading queue will come as no surprise – I anticipate the upcoming film. But early reviews have been mediocre and I’m not jumping at the chance to see it soon. When reading the novel, I was hoping the film might deliver the innovation that was lacking in the novel. Given the perceptions of Death in the early parts of the novel, particularly of the colours, I imagined an edgy-animation or a film-to-animation effect like that done for A Scanner Darkly. But, judging by the trailers, the film, like the book, looks a little unimaginative and may too become a missed opportunity.