I really can't believe that in the first three months of the year I have come across three gems in "A Thousand Splendid Suns," "A Quiet Belief in Angels" and now "The Book Thief." Each of these books is different but they are all stunning in their own individual way.
The Book Thief is highly original, although it did remind me somewhat of my book of the year for 2007 "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas." The subject matter for both books is the Nazification of Germany. Both books look at things from the perspective of a child growing up in the most turbulent of times and both have a child-like simplicity that just adds to their powers.
The Book Thief is a beautiful book from start to finish. Indeed at times it is more of a scrapbook of a life than a novel. It has a strangeness that only enhances the subject matter. For a start it is narrated by death. But this never detracts from the shape or power of the novel as young lives are slowly ripped apart in a German Town where poverty is rife.
The central character Liesel has a beautiful calmness of spirit. She always seems to be on the verge of re-alisation whilst still retaining the fragility of childhood. Slowly and gradually the evil unfolds before her as she becomes aware of the fate of the Jews in a town where she is thrust as an unwilling refugee.
In her adopted father Hans Hubermann, Zusak has created one of those unforgettable men of strength and kindness. At first when Liesel is thrust into the Hubermann household I was expecting a hard-hearted couple keen to take the small amount of money that Lisel brings with her but not so keen to give her the love that she craves. Nothing could be more from the truth. Hans is open with his love and support whilst is wife is softer than she would ever want anybody to know.
There are passages where the book appears to be meandering and nothing much seems to be happening. There is a war on, but it isn't hugely affecting those involved in the story. But then you realise, almost by chance, that it is affecting every character, sometime directly and sometimes in a rather subtler way (if war can be subtle). Then comes a cataclysmic climax that is both sad and uplifting.
This is a very unusual book. It is a delight to read and never stodgy and once again I can only highly recommend it.
on 22 February 2008
I am not sure how to describe this book - without either giving too much away - or making it sound depressing and grisely which it is not at all. Suffice to say this is a novel narrated by death. It is the story of a young girl living in Nazi Germany, who goes to live with a foster family,and learns to read, and falls in love with: books, her new Papa, a boy called Rudy, and a Jew hiding in a basement. It is also a story of WW2 - from a persepective we don't often see - ordinaary Germans - some of whom were members of "The Party."
Death takes the reader by the hand, and leads us through the lives and deaths of people in Liesel's world, he kind of "gives the game away" a few times - and yet that never spoils it - it prepares the reader for what's ahead.
This is an astonishing book - the writing is great - an unusual style - but one that fits perfectly somehow with the voice of Death - and that of the unforgettable Liesel.
on 28 November 2007
Sometimes a fictional interpretation of history is exactly what we need in order to be able to come to a real understanding of what it meant to live through historic events, particularly horrific ones. Markus Zusak provides us with a masterful interpretation of the Nazi period of German history from the perspective of ordinary people suffering through it and striving to keep their lives together and their souls alive and kicking within the horrific and ever-tightening boundaries constructed by the Nazi regime. He gives us a gut-wrenchingly palpable empathy for people facing harrowing decisions on a daily basis. His marvelous characters bring to life the dilemmas of those who believe they should help the Jews as well as the equally nightmarish predicament of Jews who through receiving help put others in danger. We see much of this through the perspective of the main character Liesel, who is only a young girl. Her innocence and the gradual realizations she comes to about the events swirling around her in a maelstrom of horror evoke a remarkable empathy in the reader. If you want to understand how the little people cope with such tragic historic events without allowing their souls to be crushed, read this book. Ultimately it is a portrait of the resilience and hope of the human spirit.
I am ambivalent towards this book. The writing style was definitely unique; I enjoyed the frequent intermissions by the narrator, which gave the story a light-hearted and a nostalgic back-in-your-childhood feel. The ending was particularly well done - poignant, perhaps tear-jerking for many readers.
However, I felt the characterisation altogether a little weak - there were very few characters I could care about; many of them appear to be cardboard cutouts of stereotypical personalities. The story meanders a lot in the middle of the book without much really happening and most of the events seem to have no purpose at all. All in all, I don't know what this book wants to be. It doesn't deliver the full atmosphere of what it was like living in Nazi Germany, as I had expected; nor is it a simple idyllic bildungsroman. It is neither happy nor depressing; its target audience appears to be neither for adults nor for children. Many would undoubtedly argue that it is precisely this ambiguity that makes the book so enjoyable; I believe it is a matter of taste whether you like those kinds of books or not.
If there is one word I would sum up the book with, it would be 'clever' - the structure certainly is ingenious and the narration with Death works very well in some parts. However, I do think that Zusak had tried a tad too hard; I felt the basics of a good book - the characters, the plot and writing style - had suffered as a result of pursuing style over content. While some people (as testified by the many positive reviews) would love this book, others will find it is not entirely up their street. Try it, and find out!
on 15 September 2008
I picked this book up in an airport on a whim. I liked the cover. It took a couple of months to open it up, but once I did, I could NOT put it down. I (foolishly) took it with me on vacation. I did NOT see the sights, because I stayed in my room all day and all night until I finished the book, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying hysterically.
This book is haunting, beautiful, and moving-but not in a sappy way. My family is Jewish, and suffered loss due to the Holocaust. But lots of people have similar stories, and have told them. They are all important, and moving, but this is completely unique, because it's not primarily about the Jews (though they are in the book).
I have to admit, I have never once thought about what it was like for regular, working class citizens to live in Nazi Germany. Or what it was like for their children. There were other innocent victims of the Nazi regime than the ones who died in the camps. Zusak vividly brings to life these special, imperfect and at the same time PERFECT characters and makes you experience their lives as if they were your own. I felt what they felt, saw what they saw, lost what they lost. And, I finished this book crying like a baby. I cried for at least half an hour. And it was wonderful.
A boy with hair the color of lemons broke my heart the night I finished reading this book. (You will understand what that means when you read it.) But I am glad he did. I would never have known him, otherwise.
READ THIS BOOK!!!!!
on 8 April 2008
A young girl, Liesel, steals books from a gravedigger at the burial of her younger brother, from Nazi book burnings and from the mayor's library. She lives with a foster family and her father slowly teaches her to read these books. Later, her family hide a Jew to keep him safe. The story is narrated by Death, who I came to respect and admire for his sense of compassion. This book tells of the nasty turns that life can take and how our lives can alter in the blink of an eye, and is about life, love and the power of words. It's the most eloquently written, emotional, yet uplifting story I have read in a long, long while and my ramblings really cannot do justice to the brilliance of this superlative tale
on 24 March 2013
I enjoyed Zusak's writing style. He has a gift for imagery and manages an easy narrative warmth. Personally, I found the personification of death in this story interesting, if a bit forced in parts, and though the whole thing could have been shorter (and the trite Word Shaker bit removed completely), all in all this was a cosy tale where everything fitted together nicely.
Now here's the thing with Holocaust fiction: there has to be truth. Crude, ugly, blessed truth. It's the only way to tackle the monstrosity, the only way to show respect for the victims. So 'cosy' is not a word I should be using in a review about a story set in WWII Germany. But as a character, Liesel is just that. Sure, she has a rough start, but from then on it's all pretty hunky dory, really. She's the Pollyanna of Molching! Her adoptive parents warm to her in the twinkling of an eye. She makes friends with a boy who paints himself black to look like Jesse Owens when he runs (I'm really hoping this one is based on some kind of anecdote from the author's mother, because otherwise the hokery is unbearable). The catatonic Nazi mayor's wife lets her steal her books. She lulls her neighbours' fears during air raids by reading to them aloud. She gives the Jewish man hiding in the cellar reason to live (and inspiration to write a graphic novelette - how marvellous!). She tames her pottymouthed neighbour by (guess what?) reading to her! She's brave enough to get in line with Jewish prisoners being marched through town.
People do die and suffer a bit around Liesel. But the dying and suffering, in fact the whole context of the War, is strangely distant. Okay, she's a child, so in a sense shielded. But events like the ones she faces should expose nerve after nerve after nerve. I couldn't feel it.
What does come out loud and clear is a mega-pitch for books. Now come on. I love books, too. I believe they have great power. But the books in this book are downright miraculous. Every time. When writers write novels about writerly things the risk of implosion is very high (too much wishful thinking, not enough raw reality), and ultimately for me that's what goes wrong here. It's a question of balance: by the end of the novel I felt as though I'd read an almost 600-page fable about a girl on a book raft, without rightful attention being paid to the tsunami of horror she was riding on.
Was it like that for Germans hiding Jews? Like Zusak, I am a child of parents who lived through the War (as teenagers in occupied Holland). My paternal grandparents hid a Jewish baby. My father was sent to a labour camp. Germans took over the hotel run by my mother's family. So I appreciate his desire to 'tell the tale', and of course there are many to be told, from many different sides. It's important. But all I know is this: whenever my grandparents or parents told their 'tales' of the War (and it was very very rarely), they were no cosy-cosy. Everyone was scared. The big word was fear. Fear, fear, fear.
on 3 January 2008
The Book Thief is the story of a ten year old orphan girl in Germany in World War II.
It is narrated by Death, who adds a wider historical perspective to the particular story of this little girl's coming of age. If this device is a conceit, it works pretty well. After a while, Death is just another character or narrator, with an adult, dry sense of (black) humour. In many ways the use of Death as a narrator reminded my of The Lovely Bones. Readers who enjoyed that book will welcome this one.
Marcus Zuzak handles his themes of loss and love deftly, and the story is made more interesting because it is the story of decent, unpolitical German people, who sometimes do wrong and sometimes do right; a book of moral contingencies then.
The writing is fluid, charming and genuinely touching. This book is highly recommneded.
on 30 April 2007
This is a book so deceptively simple, so easy to read that its astonishing depth only reveals itself towards the end and, in fact, retrospectively. It draws you into itself and you see everything through the eyes of its heroine Liesel and form attachements with people as she does. I have read extensively on the holocaust and the second world war in general but never have I seen it with this much personal clarity. I was left deeply moved and reflective and wanting to buy copies to give to everyone important to me. It's that powerful, and I believe, that important.
on 5 April 2007
"The Book Thief" is the best book I've ever read. It is beautifuly written and imposible to stop reading-you just don't want to put it down! It is unbelieveably sad but at the same time it can be funny.The plot has so many twists that the end comes as such a big shock I had to read it twice before I believe it had happened.
I read an extract out to my class and after only one and a half pages nearly everybody wanted to read it. I would highly recomend it to anyone. It is a book that should be on everyone's shelf.