Thursday 20 April 2017

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Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief by Markus ZusakThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak (bought) - HERE IS A SMALL FACT:
1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.

Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with her foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.


It's a small story, about:
a girl
an accordionist
some fanatical Germans
a Jewish fist fighter
and quite a lot of thievery.

From Goodreads.

I've owned The Book Thief by Markus Zusak for years. Although it didn't sound like my kind of book - I'm not a fan of historical novels in general, and things set during the World Wars tend not to be my bag - I bought it because of how hyped it was. Everyone I've spoken to who has read this book has loved it. That's hard to ignore. The movie was on TV over the Easter weekend, and as I wanted to read the book before seeing the movie, I thought it was about time I picked it up. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Did I think it was amazing? I'm not so sure. I'm still trying to figure that out, as it didn't hit me as hard as I expected it, too.

I loved that Death was the narrator. I found his voice fascinating. He wasn't at all like I expected him to be; he cared a lot more than I thought, and hated his job. It affects him, the things he sees, the people he must take away - children, babies, the innocent people who are the casualties of war. I know it would have made for a terribly upsetting book, but part of me wishes Death was telling us his own story, rather than Liesel's.

But Death is telling us Liesel's story because it's his distraction. When you're Death, you can't take a break or a holiday, you're constantly working. So he distracts himself instead, by noticing the beauty in the colours around him as he collects souls, and in the stories of people. And in this case, it's Liesel's. We know from the beginning that he finds her book, the book she wrote of the story of her life in Molching on the outskirts of Munich, and he is telling us her story. He's not reading us the book, he is telling us it as he remembers it, after reading it countless times, with his own additions; things he knows or has learnt from being around for eternity that add insight to Liesel's story, or moments in her story where he was present, telling us those parts from his perspective. He also has his little interjections in the narration where he pauses to emphasise something in particular; the contents of a letter, quotes from a book, a conversation, and so on. The way he tells it is just so interesting, and it's also kind of cool to have such an older, experienced, world-weary voice telling a child/teenager's story. And he cares, you know? Most of the time, it just feels like a third person narration, but he will give his thoughts, too, and he cares about what happens to Liesel and what she experiences.

But, although I loved Death's narration, I did find myself emotionally detached from Liesel's story for most of the book. I enjoyed it, and I would be affected by things that happened, but in distant, vague way. It was like watching the news, and being really upset by the terrible things that were happening to people on the other side of the world, but not how I would feel if it happened to someone I knew. It's a different sort of sadness. And yes, I do cry sometimes when I watch the news, and I cried when reading the book, but I just wasn't as upset as I would have expected to be had I known how the story would go before I opened it's pages. I think the things I loved about Death himself were the things that stopped me from getting as emotionally involved in Liesel's story as I would have liked; his older, world-weary voice, his knowing. I didn't feel Liesel's pain, I was told about it - that's kind of how it felt, even though I could see everything that happened to Liesel like I would in a normal third person narration. I just couldn't feel it as acutely.

Saying, that, though, when Death would pause and tell us what was happening with the WWII in other parts of Germany or Russia, that's when I felt it. Death was then telling us about what he saw, what he felt, and that really affected me. Those moments when he's on a battlefield collecting souls, seeing the bodies, watching those who are not quite yet dead. Those moments were horrific. They were small moments, only a few pages each, but they shook me. More so because Death, Death, was affected, too. Death does not like his job, and he's busier than usual during war, and all the things he sees. It's too much. You do feel sorry for Death, because he has no escape; he is the only one who can collect these souls, and they need collecting. It's just all so terrible.

And this may sound ridiculous, but when it comes to WWII, I've never really thought about the German civilians. At school, you only ever hear about what Hitler and the Nazi's did to others, or their own Jewish people. You don't really hear about what the Allies do to Germany. And through Liesel's story, you see that not everyone supports Hitler - in fact, there were those who hated him - but dictator that he was, they had to act like they did, or face the consequences. They're just normal, innocent, everyday people, trying to get by in a country ruled by a tyrant. And because of him, and how he needed to be stopped, these everyday people suffer, just like those Hitler attacked. Being from the UK, it was difficult to have that realisation. We did that. Hitler was a disgusting, abominable man, yes, but we killed innocent German people, too. As Death says, they were murdered. And considering what's going on in the world today, this was a bit of an eye-opener. It left me with a very heavy heart, especially at the end.

And despite my detachment, I can't deny I was in awe of the kindness, courage and strength of those ordinary people. Their desire to do right, to do something, even if the consequences could be fatal. Even when they, themselves, are already finding things hard. All the real Hans Hubermanns are gifts to the world. He was the kindest of men, with such a good heart. Aside from Death, he is who I'm going to remember from this story.

The Book Thief may not have made me as emotional as I wanted it to, but it's still a fantastic story. So yes, I think it probably is an amazing story. Just not in the way I originally expected.

Add to Goodreads

Published: 8th September 2007
Publisher: Black Swan
Markus Zusak on Tumblr

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  1. In honesty I wasn't a fan of this book. I read it for the same reasons, as it was really hyped. It just wasn't my kind of book, I think the era it was set in bores me slightly and honestly I gave it up half way through

    Abbie •

  2. Sometimes all the hype sets up high expectations. I read this before all the hype and enjoyed it - and like you I don't seek out historical fiction. It is book about love despite death. I hope you enjoy the movie.