Wednesday 7 December 2011

Devouring Books: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

I'm in a conflicted position with The Book Thief because, on the one hand I cried at the end (well, just before the end actually, but nearly the end) and not even a tiny bit but like streams and streams of tears, which tends to mean, you know, that a book was really good! But then, on the other hand, during the whole rest of the book I was kind of going "hmm... well it's ok, but I'm not exactly overwhelmed with joy while I'm reading this", and I didn't really ever have an urge to read it, you know, I just kind of read it because it was there. So it wasn't bad, but it wasn't exactly great either.

There were some things I did like about it though. Having Death as the narrator (which I think is its main selling point) was, I thought, quite a novel idea, and setting it during the second world war in Germany meant that Zusak could put in a lot of ruminating about the nature of war, and how, even though it seems like death thrives in these kind of situations, actually it's just a time where he/it has to work really really hard- a kind of 'humans call upon death to do all the hard work, whereas death itself is actually blameless' idea, which I found fascinating.

But. But but but. The actual meat of the story: basically following the exploits of this girl Liesel (the Book Thief of the title), her foster family and her best friend Rudy and his family, fell so so short for me. There are a lot of different reasons for this, but it's mainly because the entire book seems to be an exercise in forcing us into loving particular characters (basically all the main ones) whilst also letting us know that bad things are going to happen to them (since, you know, Death is narrating and there's really only one way he's going to know what happens to them) and by the time you're crying at the end, you sort of feel cheated because this is what Zusak wanted from you all along, and this is the only thing the book has been geared towards. Everything else is meaningless.

And take this, for example- Liesel's foster family take in a Jewish man for a whole reason that we didn't really need to know, and then he stays in their basement, nearly dies; and just when you think Zusak is going somewhere with this, the Jewish guy has to leave and that's the end of it. It's such a random thing, and while it means that Liesel gets a friend and someone who encourages her to write and think of stories, it all seems kind of unnecessary once he's gone, because they haven't really saved him, and none of that was really relevant. Now, I've just read a Guardian review putting this whole story arc at the centre of the novel, and as the most important thing in it, but it certainly didn't feel that way to me while I was reading it- rather than being involved with Max's suffering, it seemed to be more about how good taking in Max made Hans as a human being. Which is fine, but I don't think that it should be described a Holocaust story, because that's more of a side thing than the main event.

I think what annoyed me the most about the book was the fact that it was extremely emotionally manipulative, and just, in general, not that well written. Nonetheless, it did, like any book, have its moments, like:

"'Max' [the voice] whispered. 'Max, wake up.'
His eyes did not do anything that shock normally describes. No snapping, no slapping, no jolt. Those things happen when you wake from a bad dream, not when you wake into one."

"You want to know what I truly look like? I'll help you out. Find yourself a mirror while I continue."

"You bastards, she thought. You lovely bastards.
Don't make me happy. Please, don't fill me up and let me think that something good can come of any of this. Look at my bruises. Look at this graze. Do you see the graze inside me? Do you see it growing before your very eyes, eroding me? I don't want to hope for anything anymore. I don't want to pray that Max is alive and safe. Or Alex Steiner.
Because the world does not deserve them."

"I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn't already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating he human race- that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words so damning and brilliant."

"I am haunted by humans."

And yeah. All that reads really nicely. And it is. It's just that the rest of the story is lacking something- it doesn't go far enough for heartbreak, and yet it's too sad, and there's a threat of something too sad for it to ever be anything else. Overall, as well, I find that I've been more moved by stories that actually were about the Holocaust, and that were far less geared towards 'making you cry', and more motivated by just telling you what happened. The best example of this I can think of is Maus, which doesn't at all demand tears from you, but which I can never help but cry at. So, you know, read that instead.


  1. I was surprised how well the narrator Death worked in the book. You'd think that would have been more of a sticking point. But I do agree it is manipulative, especially at the end. (By the way, I was crying at the end which was extra embarrassing because I was in public at the time.)
    Also Holocaust book with the purpose of telling a story, not to make you cry (although you'll be bawling): Elie Wiesel's Night.

  2. I didn't even have quite as much luck with this book as you did...I liked the story a lot, but Death as the narrator didn't work for me at all--it just wasn't written well enough or something. However, I do plan on reading Maus and Night soon, so I'm glad to know those have what The Book Thief lacked.

  3. The cover of the book is gorgeous. (The US one is lacking in my opinion.) I really did like this book, but I felt a little cheated as well. Nor do I feel like it should be labeled a "Holocaust book" persay. I think there are more accurate terms that could be used.

    If you are looking for a Holocaust book that will make you cry and is a good story I would suggest The Boy In The Striped Pajamas. The guy who played Lupin in HP plays the father in the movie. I spent a good deal of the movie saying to myself Holy S*** Lupin's a nazi.

  4. @Red- I guess Death didn't interject too much, and sort of just told Liesel's story, so it wasn't too much of a big deal- although I pretty much enjoyed the things Death said more than anything else, so could way have done with more of that. Also, hehe at you crying in public! I read it like alone at about 11pm so it was fine, I just wept! But I almost didn't want to because I was cross! I might have to wait a bit til I read more Holocaust things (because, emotional!) but I'll be sure to check out Night!

    @Melody- It so wasn't written well enough. I mean, apart from those few things above that really struck me, I was just kind of like 'why are you still writing? Make events actually happen', you know?

    @Jenn-It is a pretty cool cover- I do think we get the best ones, mostly, over here :). SO not a Holocaust book- maybe, I guess, just a second world war book? I kind of think it's difficult to write a book about WWII from a German perspective because it's pretty universally decided that Germany was the bad guy... So I guess it's just easier to call it a Holocaust book in that case? I don't know. I have been meaning to read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas- my sister has the DVD, so maybe I'll just watch that (except, Lupin, nooooooo! I don't watch the Harry Potter films though, so I guess its not really an issue for me hehe)

  5. I love love love love LOVE this book, and I know that's a ridiculous amount of "love." I just can't help it. I also totally hate emotional manipulation, but this book just worked for me. In fact, I teach it in my classroom.

    BUT - I can see where you're coming from.

    I love Death as the narrator. I love the discussion of words and their power. Just love it. But sorry it wasn't the best for you.