BY SEAN CLARK
This book has been chosen as a Great Read
Author: Markus Zusak
Best ebook deal: Random House
What will instantly grab you about this novel is the identity of the narrator. The story is told by Death. At first this concerned me; I was afraid I was stepping intto a sci-fi-ish story about a child in a terrible war, a la “Pan’s Labyrinth”. However, the book doesn’t go there. The supernatural never enters the story (besides the existence of a sentient Death). Moreover, Zusak’s Death will quickly win you over. He’s one of the strongest narrators I’ve read in a very long while.
The Book Thief is about a young German girl named Liesel living with loving adoptive parents during the second world war. At its heart, this is a coming of age novel and a love story, though it would be doing the novel a disservice to label it solely as either.
This story enters some very dark areas (nazi youth, concentration camps, good people succumbing to facist pressure, violence and death) without becomming depressing. Liesel is a wonderfully bright and curious scamp, and Death’s odd affection and sympathy for the girl he watches grow amidst one of his busiest periods in modern history is touching to say the least.
As the book opens the war is more or less on the fringes of the Liesel’s consciousness, a far away thing fought in Russia and France, presenting no danger to her and her fmaily or their way of life. But as things worsen for Germany and food and money become scarce, Liesel and her friend Rudy begin to steal: Rudy, food; Leasle, books. Books become a thing of vast importance to the girl. At first it is a means of gaging self worth. The very ability to read fills her with pride in school.
It is when Liesel’s Papa agress to hide the young Jew, Max, in their basement that she understands the true value of her books. She and Max grow close, and Liesel grows to see the written word as a means of glimpsing some other truth besides the grisely one unfolding before her. She sees in books and writing a means of expression and emotional connection.
And while the plot and characters are interesting and wonderfully crafted, Death’s narration really steals the show. It is insightful and witty, at times touching and at times cold and pragmatic. He will often foreshadow subtly, or outright jump proleptically to a character’s death, then leave you wondering for 100 pages or more just when the terrible scene you’ve been warned of is coming.
“I am haunted by humanity” Death says, inverting his own existence as a specter. He struggling to understand just why people would do what they did, as might many younger readers of this book. The Book Thief certainly ahas a lot to say about World War 2 and about human nature in general, and filtering these ideas through a uniquely sentimental Death is an excellent approach to this.