Monday, December 20, 2010

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book ThiefTitle: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Pages: 550
Published: 2007 Knopf
Read For: Book Club 1 & Book Club 2
My Rating: 3.75 stars

This is the review in which I get to apologize for not liking a book as much as I feel I'm supposed to.  I've actually delayed writing about it, because I wish I had my feelings figured out a bit better.

In my mind, this books exists as two disparate stories: that of Liesel and her German foster parents in Nazi Germany (a fabulously executed look at an often neglected point of view,) and that of Death's opinion on what it is to be human and see the elusive big picture.  I loved hearing about Liesel.  I loved how well you get to know her and Hans, Rosa, and Rudy.  It really is a unique treat to come to care for the characters as much as you do in this book. On the other hand, Death remains aloof.  Even though he is the narrator--the character with whom we spend the most time--I never stopped being irritated at his voice and confused about who he really was and how he really did what he did.

I don't have a problem with abstract or random ideas in a book, generally speaking.  (For example, I was just fine with the whole chair incident in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.)  But for some reason the character of Death seemed underdeveloped and a bit gimmicky to me.  Parts of the book seemed very well written, while other parts seemed silly.  For example, Rudy had "gangly blue eyes".  Mama sat "scaredly". And a book is described as "numb and gratified, like a beautiful itch".  Those peculiar descriptions, as well as Death's constant "spoilers" just didn't work for me.  They pulled me out of the story and had me thinking about the writing process, authorial intent, and themes...completely forgetting that I had been in the middle of reading a story.

So I understand that Death being a withdrawn, detached, impersonal character is a good representation of death's role in our lives.  That isn't the issue.  I get the symbolism.  I just didn't enjoy it.  I honestly wish that I could extract Liesel's story and separate it from Death's interjections and keep it as a shining snapshot of the beauty that exists in each of us, but we can't take death out of the human picture, can we?  Regardless of how untimely, irritating, or impersonal it might be, no matter how much we'd like to remove it from wouldn't be life without death.

So there you have it.  I'd love to hear your thoughts on the writing style, and the effectiveness in using Death as a narrator...meanwhile, I'll be sitting here in the oddball corner, shamefacedly looking for friends.


  1. It's funny because a lot of the things you talk about are what bugged me initially about the book, but then it grew on me - I don't remember when the change occurred, but the voice of Death started to really work for me. It was like he was this annoying person that bugged me, but as I talked to him and got to know him I started to like him and wasn't bothered any more. Haha, that sounds kind of weird. I wrote a review a few months ago, my thoughts are probably more coherent in there!

  2. WHAT?! You didn't like it?! You're totally crazy?! (I'm sooo kidding.) It's nice to see a well-reasoned dissenting vote once in awhile. I actually really liked Death's voice, as well as the story's moral about the power of words. But I definitely do not begrudge someone else their well-argued opinion. Nicely done.

  3. I have this book on my shelf and kinda want to read it, but kinda also wanna leave it on my shelf for another five or six or ten years. it's one of those books where everyone raved and hooted and hollered and that makes my palms sweat. What if I'm only bleh and people throw rotten fruits my way. Plus, I have to admit, and maybe it's a generational thing or maybe it's because my grandma was in germany during ww2 but I am so over the topic. Does that make me a bad person? Let's hope not.

  4. I also really liked Death as the narrator. I like unusual narrators or authorial devices that add layers of narration upon a story. So, Death worked for me. I actually looked forward to his interruptions. lol. But to each his own!

  5. I get your point about Death being annoying and slightly "gimmicky," but he grew on me after I got settled into the world of Himmel Street. Like you, I ended up caring a lot for the characters, and--I'm ashamed to say--the last chapter reduced me into a quivering mass of tears.

  6. Hi Melody,
    My book club read this one a couple years ago. It remains one of our favorites, but your 'reservations' are some of the things we all noted about it as well. We all admired the "guts" it must've taken for the author to have Death as the narrator of his story, and one of our more astute readers commented about how he couldn't believe Death would keep giving away what would happen later and - even more so - how he didn't get bothered by that fact. I guess our consensus was kind of closer to what L.L. Described above - the quirkiness that initially irritated us ended up being one of the things we all liked about the book.

  7. L.L.--Death's voice did become less irritating as the book went on, but even so I kind of snorted/guffawed at Death's last line. I just wasn't sold on the voice.

    Greg--thanks for the laugh, that was fabulous! I'm glad we can all agree to disagree. :)

    Christina--I tend to shy away from overpopular books too...I usually don't like them like other people do and then I have to guard myself against those rotten fruits. I have to say that this isn't your typical WWII book though. It's more about Hitler/the power of words as opposed to the Holocaust/atrocities.

  8. Chelle--I think that's what it boils down to for me. I'm a pretty harsh judge on the authenticity of unusual narrative voices, I guess. I find it hard to cut the author some slack in that area for some reason.

    Darlyn--The characters were pretty wonderful. If it hadn't been for Death saying silly things I might have reacted the same way as you. :)

    Jay--I wish that the quirkiness had grown on me. Perhaps I would have liked it more if I'd been able to read it without the hype the surrounds it. I kept seeing the USA Today quote on the cover "The Book Thief deserves a place on the same shelf with Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank" and I kept disagreeing--it would have to be an incredibly freaking astounding book for it to live up to that praise in my mind. Maybe I can turn back time, cut that quote off the cover, and get do-overs??


I'd love to hear what you have to say, leave a comment!