For the last two weeks, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief has stolen my undivided attention.
This novel captured my imagination and my empathy, being written in a way that is both imaginative and ruthlessly real – surprising, given that the author’s inspiration comes from stories, and not any personal experience of war or persecution.
The book’s author, Markus Zusak is a 34 year-old Sydney man (bless the occurrance of Aussie bestsellers that don’t belong to Bryce Courtney!), whose parents grew up in WWII Germany. Having heard their horrific stories of what went on during that time, Zusak set out to write an original novel on a much written-about topic, which showed “the other side of Nazi Germany” – that side which was very human, and very heartbreaking.
We all know about Nazi Germany, we’ve all read a book, or seen a film, or been in a history class or two. What The Book Thief does is take us to this place but look at it from a completely different angle – this book is narrated by Death. Death, in Zusak’s imagining, views humanity in a curious way, trying to prove to himself that we’re not so bad.
The novel explores the power of words in that turbulent time in history – both the words of Hitler, and the words that the story’s main character builds a relationship with. This character, Liesel, comes to live with a foster family on a poor street in Munich. She is a generally kind-heated girl, but feels a strong pull toward a life of crime – more specifically, the stealing of books. Her relationship with words grows to be a strong one, and an astounding image in juxtaposition to the power of Hitler’s words at that time.
As the war continues and German citizens feel the pinch, believing they are in the worst state of hardship, Liesel words and her ability to keep secrets help her understand that the hardship felt by German citizens is nothing compared to the Jewish plight.
Throughout the book, Zusak’s language struck me as incredibly tight, with fantastic attention to the narrator’s point-of-view. Zusak’s Death has an interest in colours, and uses them as a distraction from the horror that humans can create:
“…The town that afternoon was covered in a yellow mist, which stroked the rooftops as if they were pets, and filled up the streets like a bath”
Tiny simple moments and actions are created fully and beautifully through Zusak’s language:
“…Rudy’s voice reached over and handed Liesel the truth. For a while, it sat on her shoulder, but a few thoughts later in made its way to her ear”
While plenty of people have written about Nazi Germany in many a novel, play, and screenplay, Markus Zusak brings something truly original and touching to the subject. He treads a fine line between the magical suspension of reality and the crushing realities of the time.
With the exception of the cliche’d use of dictionary definitions to punctuate one chapter of the novel, Zusak handles mood and tone wonderfully, remembering to pace the depressing episodes nicely so that the book doesn’t ever become tiring. Characters are full and convincing, and all strands in this novel come together in a very satisfying way.
This is the only novel of Zusak’s that I have read, but his artful use of words leaves me keen to read more of his work.
As a book on a tired topic, The Book Thief hits all the right notes – convincing, poignant, consistent and tightly written. One of the best novels I’ve read in a while.