The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak
I know it's only snobbishness but I find myself resisting books that have the word bestseller slapped on the cover, especially 'International bestseller'. If I haven't discovered a book like that for myself I'm very resistant to joining the throng. This particular novel also seems to have been designed to sell well. Central character who is a child; check. Storyline with books having prominence; check. The Holocaust; check. Something quirky (this book is narrated by Death); check. And kerrching! Let the money flow in. I know this is very cynical and more importantly you could design a book with all these elements and it still be a load of rubbish if you can't write well, but these are the reasons I hadn't even thought of picking this book up. But then it was put into my hand. So I read it.
It's long. Almost 600 pages. Admittedly it's not really as long as that sounds as there are a few pictures and the typography means that hardly any pages are simple blocks of text. This is mainly because Death frequently interrupts his narrative with 'quirky' observations or headings telling us what is going to happen next or what's really going on in a character's head. A few times this is entertaining but after a while it begins to grate and after a few hundred pages it's just irritating. It's a really lazy way of putting the story across, a bit like relying on a narrator in a stage play to explain what's going on (and before you complain, yes, I know Shakespeare did it). For much of the book it felt like I was reading a book for children (In some countries it has been marketed as just that); having everything explained is supposed to come across as illustrative of the omnipotence of Death I guess but it felt a little patronising to be honest. Here for example is how Death sums up his work during the battle of Stalingrad ferrying between the Germans and Russians collecting the souls of 'disassembled men':
'It was no ski trip, I can tell you.'
To be greeted by a line like this after persisting for 500 pages made me want to throw the book at the wall. It's not funny, it's not clever, and no one is the slightest bit amused. Death could have provided an amazing insight into humanity (or the lack of it given the wartime setting) but instead delivers adolescent bon mots to show how tiresome it is being him. Tiresome indeed. At one point we are even treated to dictionary quotations to explain the meaning of emblematic words.
It's a shame because there are moments were Zusak writes incredibly well. The plot revolves around Liesel, a young girl fostered by Hans and Rosa Hubermann, and the relationships she makes with them, a Jew named Max (whom they hide in their cellar) and her best friend Rudy. Haunted by the death of her younger brother on the train ride to the Hubermanns Liesel is comforted each night by Hans who reads her the book she stole at her brothers burial, the first of many which will give her the eponymous title. When they finally finish The Gravedigger's Handbook early one morning,
'It was one of those moments of perfect tiredness, of having conquered not only the work at hand, but the night who had blocked the way.'
A feeling familiar to anyone who loves reading and has been compelled to continue into the night. Her relationship with Max is well written and there is great economy to the way Zusak describes the practicalities of harbouring a Jew in Germany at this time.
'Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it 24 hours a day.That was the business of hiding a Jew.'
Death is quite up front about the toll he will exact during the course of this story but there's plenty of misdirection along the way. The book is overwritten, not nearly as clever as it thinks it is and provides little original insight into the plight of German citizens during the war. Near the end we read quotes from the book Liesel herself writes, a tantalising glimpse of what this novel could have been without Death as our guide. Let me offer him a dictionary definition of my own: Disappoint, verb - to fail to meet the expectation or hope of, frustrate.
Irmgard Keun's Child Of All Nations, written before the outbreak of war, provides a far more insightful, entertaining and succint version of events.