The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak
First off, my impression:
This book resembles a brittle picture book with almost no pictures and heavily laden with words.
Brittle, with gritty details of events and scenery. Brittle in the sense that the narrative remains tinged with bitter, passive-aggressive anger throughout. Brittle, in that the sentences seem to have fallen onto the pages in tiny flakes – short, choppy phrases and clauses scattered almost randomly into paragraphs.
Yet, it’s super clear: the author chooses his words carefully and deliberately. He puts weight in each one with loving care. The crazy, random sensation comes from the fact that he’s taken these carefully constructed sentences and thrown them onto the page, bombarding the reader with laden descriptions and meaningful actions one after another.
The book is heavy with words. It was exhilerating, yet weighted. I felt rushed to read, while knowing full well I was missing half the significance of the little adjectives and verbs the author dropped here and there, almost carelessly. “The days hobbled on.” “The cold was streaming on.” “The crowd did what crowds do.” “The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring.”
I’m still a bit unsure whether the author spent hours upon hours crafting each word, or if he just kind of … typed it up all at once and never looked back. Either way, I liked it. I’d imagine the entire book was ALL CAPS and bold if the author truly had his way.
The book is a picture book, in that this book lives out the metaphor, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” It tries pretty hard to paint a picture using words (although it deliberately gives up this endeavor at one point to present to us a series of sketches in the middle of the story). The end result is a series of flashing images in the reader’s mind, though it all remains hazy and somewhat sepia-tinged. Not literally, but I got the sense of riffling through old photographs in an attic. The matter-of-fact tone of the author mixes with descriptions of startling clarity and punch to create a series of impressions. I never could imagine any of the characters’ faces, and I may have a bit of a complaint that the author decided not to zoom in on them a little more. But I appreciated the experience of imagining faded photos while reading a 500-page novel.
Then, some details I particularly appreciated:
- This book is narrated partially by Death, personified. A sort of snarky, cynical Death that knows how to appreciate color and a well-written book. I personally enjoyed Death’s subjective portrayal of events, and I think the author falls short in that the story only brings in Death as a narrator in parts, and not the whole. A lot of the actual events in the story are narrated in third-person, and Death only interjects sometimes to comment on how he sees what’s happening. I would have liked to see more of him, even if I understand that he is meant to provide commentary from off-screen, rather than take center stage.
- “Words” are a powerful symbol. “Words” represent power, control, and oppression in the printed form of Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler. They also represent the freedom and the ability to fight back, through Max’s handwritten book The Word Shaker. The title of Max’s book resonates especially powerfully – he shakes “words,” but words are a lot more than just words. Words are the tools of the oppressors, and he uses those same tools to shake their regime. Words also provide comfort as Liesel reads a book out loud to her neighbors during air raids. Words can connect people – like Liesel and the mayor’s wife. Unspoken words mean as much as spoken ones – in Rosa’s silence as she holds her absent husband’s accordion. The book is littered with this sort of symbolism. I had a lot of fun wading through it all (especially those moments when the author takes specific moments, cuts them out of the standard paragraphs, centers and bolds them, in order to drive home his point. This book in itself demonstrates the importance of words and their mode of presentation).
- The main character is … Polish? Her best friend is explicitly described as Aryan, with blonde hair and blue eyes. Her father qualifies for the Communist Party. This is a story about World War II from the perspective of several surprisingly marginal people groups, and shows how they may have been affected after all.
And one thing I didn’t quite appreciate:
The major spoilers given right at the start of the book. Call it a personal dislike. I do not favor a narrative style when major events are outright told to the reader before we even begin the story. It takes a lot of the suspense and anticipation out of the reading experience. Yes, the opening chapters were artistically written, and I admit I loved the experience of reading them. But still. I went into it knowing certain people were going to die. Not cool.
Despite that, I enjoyed the read very much. Like I said, exhilarating yet heavy. A unique reading experience not easily copied by others. Recommended, if only for the satisfaction of reading a book that appreciates its own genre.