Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Book Thief (Markus Zusak) (6.5/10.0)

The Book ThiefIf you sat down to create the personification of death, what characteristics would you attribute to it? It’s an interesting question, and not always an easy one to answer. I think that it’s difficult to attribute any range of emotion to death simply because the event itself is so charged with certain base emotions that we all share. And because of our shared experience, death personified would appear to be somewhat two-dimensional. Characteristics including heavy, brooding, powerful, stoic, contemplative, frightening, and even cruel, predominate in popular culture, from the Grim Reaper to Joe Black. And we’re so consistently exposed to these darker anthropomorphisms that it is difficult to imagine any variation from them. What would the world make of a personified death that grew profoundly sad at the birth of a human being and overjoyed at taking him back at death?

The personification of death is the conceit of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, a 2006 work which has received numerous awards in both young adult and general fiction categories and has been the recipient of positive reviews all around. It is death that tells the story of little Liesel Meminger s she struggles to make sense of the harsh words and actions of Nazi Germany under the Fuhrer and their effects on the people that she loves. In Zusak’s conception, death is one part stoic, one part curious, and one part sympathetic. He seems to have taken a unusual interest in Liesel, which he admits happens very rarely, and he follows her—collecting bodies along the way—through the long years of the war and beyond.

I admit that I liked the book as opposed to disliking it, but I found Zusak’s death as two-dimensional as any other representation, meaning that the novelty of the conceit wore off after the first hundred pages or so. And the human characters of the book were not very much more rounded, though it was impossible not to sympathize with orphaned Liesel and her adoptive parents, among others. The most interesting portions of the book for me were those that dealt with the hidden divide in German society during the war years and the mechanisms set up to root out and punish those that would undermine the Fuhrer and the war effort. At more than five hundred pages, I wish the book had included more of this. As it was, it dragged and I really had to struggle to finish it.

To tell you the truth, I really feel guilty about not liking this book more (especially given all the hype surrounding it). Perhaps it is simply a young adult novel from which I expected too much. Perhaps I am simply a bad reader. Or perhaps the book is simply overrated. I assume that most of you must have liked it. What was it that compelled you?


  1. I quite liked the 'community' within that street. I liked how all the different neighbours interacted with eachother from the women who spat at their front door every time she walked past to the hords of kids everywhere. I also liked the detachment showed that the people had with the war, they were more concerned with food shortages or their childrens welfare than the war until towards the end when people were bign sent away.

    I liked how the character death was used to show Starlingrad and to remind the reader that there are people in the war suffering much more. This could not have been shown if Liesel was narrating in 1st person.

    It was a very long book though and parts dragged a tad but overal I really liked it.

  2. This was one of those books I held out on as long as I could, but when I finally did read it, I really enjoyed it. I thought the Death-as-narrator conceit worked fine. It just became something you got used to, but as a narrator, I thought he was fantastic.

    But to me, the story's profundity was in its message about the power of words and stories. That's what I liked about the book most - and, the idea of sympathizing with Germans during the war was interesting too, as you mention.

    My review from January is here, if you're interested:

    Enjoyed reading your take on it!

  3. I really liked this book and especially liked Death as the narrator. I liked reading a story about survival from Death's perspective. I think Death gave me a broader view of Liesel's story and a unique reading experience. Death's voice leant an authority to talk about war that I don't think I would have found believable from an unknown third person narrator. Death was able to show me more than a first person narrator may have as well.

    I too liked the social commentary and read more to see the community's outcome as much as to finish Liesel's story. In the end, it was the writing style that prompted me to keep turning pages. I guess Death just really worked for me.

  4. @Jessica, now that you remind me of it, I too liked the portrayal of the neighborhood, especially the kids at play. It has been a while since I've read a book that so accurately depicts what it's like to be a kid among kids just trying to have fun around the neighborhood.

    @Greg, I absolutely agree that the words-as-power theme is a very interesting one, but I think that's where the book lost me. While the ideas of the book were powerful, I thought that the language of the book itself was rather bland. Thinking back on it, my reading of this book was punctuated by readings of Matterhorn, The Ask, and A Fierce Radiance (all of which I loved). Maybe I would have felt more of the force of the story if I had read it straight through. As I said, too many people whose opinions I respect absolutely loved this book, so I'm more than willing to believe that it was my own reading that left me wanting.

    @Chelle, you're absolutely right that using the voice of death allowed Zusak to take a much broader view of the war, and it was effective in that sense. At the same time, by taking the broader view, I thought that some detail was lacking in his depiction of the neighborhood and the action. I guess it's a trade-off and Zusak certainly made the right choice from a perspective of popular interest.