Title: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (2005)
How I Came By This Book: This book was recommended to me by Ellie and was chosen by my followers in a poll. The book itself came from, where else?, my library.
Challenges: GoodReads 2011 Reading Challenge
Synopsis: "It's just a small story really, about, among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery...."
Narrated by Death, Markus Zusak's groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young foster girl living outside of Munich in Nazi Germany. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she discovers something she can't resist--books. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor's wife's library, wherever they are to be found.
With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, Liesel learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids, as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.
Markus Zusak, award-winning author of I Am the Messenger, has crafted an unforgettable novel about the ability of books to feed the soul.
SPOILER WARNING: I am going to be incapable of talking about this book without discussing major plot points, including the ending. If you want this book to remain unspoiled, don't read this review. I'm giving it five out of five Gabriels and suggesting that you go get a copy and read it right now. For those of you who wish to continue, don't say I didn't warn you.
Review: I actually read this book last month and am just getting around to reviewing it. With any other book, the time between my reading it and my reviewing it might have hindered said review; with The Book Thief there's no chance of that. I don't think I'll ever forget this book...or the way it made me feel.
I had heard of this book ages ago and, as has been the case with a lot of the books I've read for this blog, I put off reading it for one reason or another. Sure, it was narrated by Death, which is usually all it takes to get me to read a book, but that wasn't enough for me. Even though I love history, the Holocaust isn't an event that interests me. Let me clarify this statement: I am in no way saying that I don't find it interesting. What I'm saying is that it's very difficult for me to read books or watch films pertaining to the Holocaust (and World War II in general). The horrors of what occurred in concentration camps, firebombed towns, and people's own homes is often too hard for me to experience even on a second-hand basis. Therefore, I tend to avoid reading books like this one. It was chosen by my readers, however, so I forced myself to sit down and read it...and I finished it less than 24 hours later.
What I discovered between the covers of this sizable book was compelling, touching, funny, terrifying, and uplifting all at once. The characters are fully-realized and they become almost like friends within only a few chapters of being introduced to them. You are instantly drawn into Liesel's story and are engaged with it right up to the end. Her triumphs are your triumphs; her failures affect you as much as they affect her. It's like you've been dumped into Nazi Germany and are an invisible, yet integral, part of her foster family. This, of course, makes the ending of this novel even more difficult to deal with.
The characters that I found to be the most endearing and memorable are Rudy (Liesel's best friend), Hans Hubermann (her foster father), and Max Vandenburg (the Jewish fist fighter). The story itself takes place over several years so the reader really gets to know these people. Zusak is so skilled at character building that I could almost believe that he was simply telling a story about real people rather than characters he made up in his head. They each have hopes, dreams, fears; they all have back stories and unique voices; and they each play their role in the novel so perfectly. You want so much for these people to realize their full potential, to have futures, and to continue to influence the world around them. Some of the characters do but many of them do not (a point which will be discussed later).
The narrative structure is unique and is one of the things that really drew me into the novel. Death is a perfect narrator for a story about World War II, a war in which millions upon millions died. He's also perfect for the job because he knows everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen. The story jumps from the past to the present to the future on several occasions and Death himself gives some spoilers away throughout the story. It's a brilliant way to engage the reader and to keep them reading until the end. Just enough is given away that it makes you fear for these people and what happens to them and you practically race to the end to discover what Death is talking about. Several times I made guesses about what was going to happen (some of them wrong, some of them right) but when I got there, even when I was right, I was still surprised by what I found. I was also surprised by how I felt.
I never give away endings in my reviews, but I need to make an exception for this book. Once again I'm going to put up a SPOILER WARNING and tell anyone who doesn't want to know what happens to stop reading this review and go read the book. You really won't be disappointed. I promise.
For those of you still with me, this may be the only time that I ever break my rule about not giving a book away. Death spoils it for the reader before it happens, but that doesn't make it any less emotional of an ending and it doesn't mean that you won't be affected any less than you would have been originally.
I'm talking, of course, about the firebombing of Liesel's neighborhood, the one which, at the end of the novel, literally destroys everything she's ever known. Death describes in detail what's going on as the characters in the novel are killed in their sleep by falling bombs. Rudy, Liesel's foster parents, the Hitler-loving Frau Diller, the unfortunate Tommy Müller--everyone Liesel knows dies in the same night. Liesel herself survives the bombing only by chance and is left to pick up the pieces of her shattered life.
I'm not usually an emotional person, although I won't say that I don't ever get teary-eyed. The end of this novel made me completely break down. I started getting emotional around the time that Liesel's father attempted to feed starving Jews who were being marched to Dachau concentration camp and I didn't really stop feeling that way for the rest of the book. It was the end, however, that made me cry harder than anything else ever has in my entire life and I sincerely mean that. I don't remember ever having been so emotionally involved and attached to fictional characters nor do I remember ever mourning them as much as I did. Even now, a few weeks later, while writing this review I'm getting a little choked up. Zusak delves so deeply into these characters that they feel real and you mourn them as if they were real.
This is the true joy that this book brings and its the reason why I felt compelled to discuss the ending. I couldn't fully explain how it had affected me without explaining why it had affected me. The plot and the dialogue in this novel are well-planned and well-written but it is the characters that Zusak introduces you to that will stick with you. I think this is why Death doesn't stop himself from giving away the ending. He knows that no matter how much you know about what's going to happen to these people, you will still use up an entire box of Kleenex in the last fifty pages.
There is a lot in this book that is hard to read: parades of starving Jews, firebombings, book burnings, suicide, the horrors of war. None of it detracts in any way from the novel and, in fact, I couldn't see the book having the same emotional impact without them. To fully immerse yourself into a story about an historical event, you need to be confronted with the realities faced by people living during that time period. This is especially true of World War II, an event which saw the murder of 6 million Jews, the death of millions of Russian soldiers (not to mention thousands of American, Italian, British, German...the list goes on), the dropping of two atomic bombs, the storming of the beaches of Normandy, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and the horrific firebombing of Dresden (which killed more people and damaged more property than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined).
Zusak is able to weave the real-life horrors of war into the story with the same skill that he weaves the characters back stories into the story. It is some of the most chilling writing I've experienced this year and it's made even more so by the fact that it's Death himself who is doing the talking. That is not to say that there isn't humor in this novel. There's loads of that. There's as much humor and joy as there is tragedy and sadness. Zusak strikes just the right balance between the two--you laugh so hard your sides hurt and then you cry so hard that your eyes hurt. It's everything I've come to expect from a great novel...and more.
The Book Thief gets five out of five Gabriels from me and is my favorite out of all the books I've read so far for this blog. Read it, even if you didn't listen to my warnings and you went ahead and read the review anyway. There is so much to love about this novel, not the least of which is the fact that it's a great cathartic experience.