Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, 2006

Wading through, a soldier was soon at the scene of the crime. He studied the kneeling man and Papa, and he looked at the crowd. After another moment's thought, he took the whip from his belt and began.

The Jew was whipped six times. On his back, his head, and his legs. "You filth! You swine!" Blood dripped now from his ear.

Then it was Papa's turn.

A new hand held Liesel's now, and when she looked in horror next to her, Rudy Steiner swallowed as Hans Hubermann was whipped on the street. The sound sickened her and she expected cracks to appear on her papa's body. He was struck four times before he, too, hit the ground.

When the elderly Jew climbed to his feet for the last time and continued on, he looked briefly back. He took a last sad glance at the man who was kneeling now himself, whose back was burning with four lines of fire, whose knees were aching on the road. If nothing else, the old man would die like a human. Or at least with the thought that he was a human.


I'm not so sure if that's a good thing. ---- (pages 394-395)

It seems odd that a book as flagrantly unusual as The Book Thief has such a seemingly pedestrian premise. YA tales of little girls who find solace in books are pretty thick on the ground, and stories of the Holocaust are equally common. It's not Zusak's subject matter that makes his novel such an arresting and fascinating read; it's his lyrical, idiosyncratic prose, his ability to build characters, his willingness to deliver an emotional gut-punch and his bizarrely effective choice of narrator.

It's the eve of World War II, and Death is about to be very busy. Yes, that Death, a strange, funny, melancholy being doomed to carry out his difficult task for eternity. Death is obsessed with the tale of one particular human: a little German girl named Liesel Meminger.

Liesel, abandoned by her mother for reasons that are never quite clear to her, lives in the small town of Molching with her foster parents. She becomes fascinated with books and words at a young age, and soon graduates to stealing books from various places. Her world is turned upside down when her father, repaying an old debt, hides a young Jewish man from the Nazis in the family's basement, setting Liesel and her town on a collision course with disaster.

The Book Thief is a long and lovingly crafted novel, each character, incident and plot point carefully developed. From the start, Zusak makes no secret of where the book is heading; there's so much foreshadowing that it almost becomes annoying, but the incessant foreshadowing both creates a creeping feeling of inevitability and softens the final blow a bit. He did warn you what was coming, after all.

Zusak's writing is unique, without a doubt. Death is a wonderful narrator, a mix of creepiness, pathos and surprisingly funny black comedy. Death sees the world in colors and metaphors, some of them a tiny bit overblown, some of them achingly beautiful. I've never read prose quite like this; Zusak alternates poeticism with bursts of terse, rat-a-tat-tat narration. For the most part, his style works magnificently. As with any highly stylized prose, there's always a risk of coming off as forced, but Zusak only falls into this trap a few times.  Death addresses the reader directly, sometimes in separate segments separated from the main text, and there are several pages of haunting black and white illustrations, too. These devices are playful, but as quietly dark as the rest of the book.

It's a testament to Zusak's skill as a writer that he can make you care so much about characters that you know are doomed from the start: Hans Hubermann, Liesel's gentle stepfather, Rosa Hubermann, her strong-willed, profane stepmother, Rudy Steiner, her neighbor and best friend, Ilsa Hermann, the emotionally fragile mayor's wife, Max Vandenburg, the guilt-ridden Jewish fist-fighter. Liesel herself could have easily been a bit of a cliche (the tomboyish girl who loves books), but Zusak paints her as an unusual YA protagonist: angry, hurt, strong but needy, smart but not brilliant. Her quiet friendship with Max is the heart of the book, and it's as affecting and honest as the rest of the novel, although I have to admit that my favorite character is definitely Rudy. He's so hopeful and kind, a bit of a loser, but perhaps more intelligent and mature than Liesel herself.

The rather brilliant cover doesn't lie, though; Zusak has carefully set up his dominoes for the express purpose of knocking them down. The final sequence is not suspenseful--it has been too broadly hinted at it to hold many surprises--but it is utterly devastating and tragic, almost Shakespearean in its aura of tragic inevitability. There is something a little manipulative about creating such well realized characters only to kill most of them off, but at least it's emotional manipulation of the highest order. Although Zusak wears his heart on his sleeve, he's anything but maudlin. Even a moment as dramatic as Liesel finally giving Rudy's corpse a much-sought-after kiss doesn't come off as cheap. Absolutely heartbreaking, but not cheap.

The Book Thief has some themes that are hard for any novel to handle, let alone a young adult novel. The book's grimly humorous look at humanity's capacity for both incredible good and catastrophic evil is surprising in its intensity. Perhaps even more surprising is Zusak's refusal to parcel out a simple, comforting conclusion. No one seems sure whether humanity is really worth it after all, although nearly every character searches for justification in some way: Liesel through literature, Max through art, Hans through music and even Rudy in his idolization of Jesse Owens. Death, of course, hangs on to Liesel's story as some scant proof that all the evil he's witnessed has a counterpoint. His final statement (the last line of the book, too) is as dark and ambiguous as the rest of the narrative, and as beautiful.

NEXT UP: The Shadow Rising, the most massive volume yet in the Wheel of Time series.