Friday, July 9, 2010

Review: The Book Thief

Me stuff:
I'm not a fan of historical fiction. It just hasn't ever appealed to me. Thus, I put off reading this book, set in 1939, Nazi Germany, even though a friend had sung its praises and insisted I take her copy home to read. I'm ashamed to say that the book sat forlornly on my dressing table for a good number of weeks. Whenever it would catch my eye, I found something else to occupy myself with. I finally picked it up one weekend when I knew I'd been on a train for a total of three hours (to work, to boyfriend's family's house, back to work, back home).

The actual book review:
Although The Book Thief displays many of the conventions of historical fiction, I wouldn't call it that. The label is far too restrictive. The novel contains a story as amazing and as lushly descriptive as any epic fantasy I have read. It contains dazzling pieces of humanity, hidden in the sweat and grime of Nazi Germany, and reflected in the eye of a very unique narrator. The characters in this book cry and run, eat and sleep, think and dream in its pages and as you read, you feel every bit of it. Though the characters in the book have to deal with the horrible crimes and inhumane behaviours of 1939 Germany, I wouldn't call this a 'Holocaust book' at all. The story just happens to take place in Germany during the Holocaust. Don't get me wrong, the issues are not made light of in any way - the characters experience all the violence and racism, it just isn't the main focus of the book. I can't comment on any historial inaccuracies, and twenty minutes of Googling didn't show anything either so I assume it's more or less factually legitimate.

Markus Zusak's technique goes beyond wordplay - I would unreservedly call him a true wordsmith. His phrasing and language are so new, and are yet so perfectly fitting that you marvel, "why did nobody think to put it that way before?" I would re-read his book just for the way he writes, but what he writes is just as beautiful and heart-breaking. The language just enhances it.

If I like a book, usually I tear through it, desperate to sate my curiosity and to 'keep up' with the narrative. This book created a whole new reading experience for me - I read it over a period of four days. The book is 584 pages long, something I'd usually polish off in a single day. The narrator frequently 'spoils' future events for you. This changes the whole experience you have as a reader - you know what's coming, so you're waiting for it, but it's not unbearably tense, or conversely, boring. The bits in-between major events are just as beautiful and vital - every word is precious, so there is no temptation to skim or skip. Whilst there are major and minor events in the book, every paragraph is vital to the story. There is no filler, no supurfluous background, no descriptive swamps. Each sentance is there because it needs to be; it is a brick in the wall, that if it were to disappear, would cause the wall  to crumble and fall.

Maybe it's this altered sense of tension that allowed me to put the book down and mull over what I'd already  read, without feeling as though I were missing out on things. I do think it had a lot to do with the way Zusak writes, the spellbinding yet simple way he describes everything, from clouds, to pain, to stale biscuits. His wording is striking in its ingenuity and so tangible. I will read this book again, many times. I plan on buying my own copy and putting it on the shelf with my other favourite novels.

The Book Thief is not quite an adrenaline-spiking adventure book, or a glittering fantasy, or a cerebral science-fiction book that you can pick up and put down with nary a thought. It's not an 'entertainment' book to pass the time with. It's painfully, exquisitely real, and I need to breathe and think for a little bit before I immerse myself in it again. It is a book that will sink itself into you and never quite let go. I would say go out and buy a copy right this second if you can, for the sheer quality of the writing, but make sure you're ready to be intellectually and emotionally stirred before you pick it up.

I have heard (and read) that in America (well, North America at least) The Book Thief had been released as a 'young adult' fiction book. This baffled me. I mean, sure, the main character is a young girl, but I wouldn't classify this as YA at all. It's like George Orwell's Animal Farm, or Frederic S. Durbin's Dragonfly (my review of that here), in that although by dint of the blurb it sounds as if it is intended for a younger audience, the content is definitely something you need a level of maturity to properly absorb and appreciate.

The differeces between the Aussie cover (left) and what I assume is the US cover (right) are fascinating:

In some of the reviews I read, there was some pretty heavy-duty cover analysing done. I think it's a somewhat iffy thing, personally, as authorial control over what goes on the cover varies so wildly. Some authors are so involved, they design or draw their own, whereas others don't see the finished product until it goes onto bookshelves. That being said, I do love the Aussie cover, and I think it represents the book far better than the other one. Aren't dominoes cliche yet?

Author info:
Considering both the subject of the book, and the international acclaim of the author, I was surprised and delighted to find that Markus Zusak is Australian. Another ray of light for those of us Aussies who have been 'bit by the writing bug'! Zusak is the child of one German and one Austrian immigrant, which would explain his fascination with the subject and would have no doubt helped him with the German language, emotional and historical accuracy of the book.

To date, Zusak has written four other books, with one, Bridge of Clay, due out in September this year. His Wikipedia page has his bibliography. The next most renowed book of his is The Messenger, which I'd definitely like to read before the new one comes out.

Here is a quick little interview with Zusak by the UK Guardian.
Here is his official Random House page.
A review by UK's The Independant.
A review by the New York Times.


  1. The Messenger is awesome. My best friend Austen never reads anything but he BEGGED me to read that book. That is the true power of Marcus Z.


  2. hey, i like the aussie cover too! though that's the only one i've seen being that i am from aussie land.... and i had the exact same reaction to the us one, looks so cliche. i'm glad they kept the other cover here.

  3. Elimy: After JulNo, I'm going to have to juggle reading and uni, somehow... and yes, I know you love h/f :)

    Porcelaine: Hi! Yes, we did get the better end of the bargain with those covers :)


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