The Book Thief, along with its armful of literary awards1, is technically a book for young adults, though, like the best young adult books (see John Green’s œuvre, which includes An Abundance of Katherines), it is really written for adults both young and old. The label may stem in part from the fact that its main character is a young girl; for some reason, stories written about children tend to be immediately dismissed as being written for children as well.
It is also, let us admit, yet another entry about the Holocaust into a very crowded market; more to the point, there are many memorable books about the Holocaust we already have2. What new quality does The Book Thief give us?
I mentioned John Green specifically because he has in fact written a review of The Book Thief for the New York Times. I recommend reading the review, if for no other reason than Green’s approach is somewhat mechanical, of a sort which speaks to his experience navigating the fickle border market of young adult fiction.
The Book Thief‘s narrator is none other than Death himself, though we aren’t given to understand his nature aside from the fact that he doesn’t own a scythe, wears the robes for comfort, and is apparently prone to wistful and melancholic contemplation of the human race. But it’s fitting, I suppose, that a kinder, gentler Death be our tour guide; his relative omniscience gives explanation where necessary, and the nature of his task is the preoccupation of the book. It is about World War II, after all.
The narrator, by his own admission, cares little for leaving surprises until the end; he’ll routinely say that this character or that will die at the end of a particular section, and then return to his narration. The “why” and “how” is much more important than the “what”, according to him, which is a common (and, admittedly, true) device that I’ve talked about before. Though the “why” and “how” in Nazi Germany in the middle of the Allies’ bombing campaigns is also considerably less interesting, since most of the “how” that occurs in The Book Thief is dumb, violent misfortune.
In stark contrast to the story, which, though touching, is one of a tempest, Zusak’s prose is structured, elegant, and rich like chocolate. One effect of a narration by Death is that the usual points of distraction are blasé, and one notices the craft with which terrible things are described. That Death, soon after carefully cradling the soul of a suicide, makes his exit “into the breakfast-colored sun”. These sorts of phrases initially seem nonsensical until one actually stops to think just what “breakfast-colored” is; the idea is Zusak’s, but the creation of the color is the reader’s. I love this approach to description; it has the potential for so much more power than if the author does a more straightforward comparison.
At the center of The Book Thief is the book thief herself, Liesel Meminger. When the story opens (after Death’s rather overwrought introduction), Liesel is traveling on a train with her brother and mother to Liesel’s new foster family, and her brother dies quietly in his sleep (we aren’t told from what). Later, at the graveyard, Liesel steals a book called The Gravedigger’s Handbook, for no other reason than she is young and afraid and confused, but this theft, we are told, is but the first of many books that Liesel will ultimately steal. Though Death fails to mention it, he too is a book thief, since he carries with him a book that Liesel is yet to write, which he plucked (will pluck) from a pile of rubble at the book’s end.
Liesel is only eleven; some of the book is dedicated to the typical travails of a young girl in a new place. Bullies and friends, mean teachers, learning to read; if it weren’t for the looming specter of war and the frowning visage of Der Führer, Liesel could just as easily be in Des Moines, Iowa. But there is an undercurrent, which we cannot forget because Death constantly reminds us, of foreboding, which not only stamps the more mundane events with swastikas, but reminds us of promised destruction and death to come. It is reminiscent in style of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, though much less about an imperious youth in summer and more about an imperious youth in a terrifying police state; the particular prose, sometimes bordering on florid, is entrancing, and when such talk about colors is coming, apparently, from Death’s mouth, it’s enough to make us forget that the character-as-narrator is rather impenetrable and not well-used.
Unlike personal accounts of the Holocaust, which might describe 6 or 12 months in the unmitigated horror of a concentration camp, The Book Thief is only obliquely about the Holocaust itself, and only lately a tragedy, most of its unfortunate events packed into the end of the book. For most of its length, it is a character drama, set in a small German town; Hitlerian imagery and hidden Jews are not themselves the story, but mechanisms by which to achieve the story of Liesel Meminger’s growth, and the dispensation or thrift of her affection. It is, to borrow Death’s explanation, about their colors, and the beauty inherent in everything both good and bad. Zusak’s plot, while sprawling, nonetheless feels a little thin and unfulfilling; what saves it in the end is his gift for prose.