Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak

"The breakfast coloured sun."


"icy, Decemberish water"


"I carried them in my fingers, like suitcases"


"cloud-spat blues"


"It brewed in her as she eyed the pages full to the brims of their bellies with paragraphs and words."


"The oldened young man."


“Fear is shiny. Ruthless in the eyes.”


“Handfuls of frosty water can make almost anyone smile,"


"Pinecones littered the ground like cookies."


"He crawled to a disfigured figure."


“Could she hear my cursed circular heart beat revolving like the crime it is in my deathly chest?”


“His eyes were cold and brown — like coffee stains"


Imagine you don't know The Book Thief by Markus Zusak exists (maybe you don't?) You've never read it, okay? (maybe you haven't?) Now imagine I showed you the quotes I listed above. Imagine I asked you: "Is this a book you would be interested in reading?" Based on those quotes alone, what would you answer?


Nah? Me neither. The writing style of this book completely ruined it for me. Mr Zusak managed the skilful feat of turning what could have been an emotionally charged, fascinating and captivating story into a stuttering, disjointed and uncomfortable collection of words on a page. I read the entire book in a state of mild irritation. This is not the reaction I was expecting to have. The Book Thief is hailed as a literary masterpiece, a triumph!! Instead, it read to me as experimental fiction gone wrong. In my opinion, the author was just too heavy handed with the symbolism, the metaphor and the feels. The recipe calls for a pinch of each. He was glugging them in by the bucket load, along with an entire bottle of gimmick, a block of poetry-esque prose and an extra large packet of rambling and I just didn't enjoy it. I was left feeling bloated and uneasy. The whole thing felt way too much like a grad school project for me to take seriously. I believe this was originally written by Zusak as adult fiction, and then on being marketed for America was labelled for teens. Very telling. There's nothing wrong with YA. That's pretty much all I read so I kinda love it. But there's a different standard expected for adult fiction. A richer storyline, deeper character development, sophisticated writing style. These were nowhere to be found in The Book Thief.

I was very disappointed in Liesel. And Rudy. And Hans. And Rosa. They were little more than a collection of anecdotes. I couldn't give them faces. I couldn't hear their voices. They were like stick figures - not fleshed out in the slightest, completely 2 dimensional. This I totally wasn't expecting. I was all ready to be wowed by them. But I was just left feeling rather underwhelmed. The story goes that Liesel is sent to live with a foster family for an unspecified reason (I'm guessing her mother just couldn't afford to care for her anymore? Or possibly feared for her safety?) From there it's basically a coming of age story in a made-up town in World War 2 Germany with a tragic ending (no need for a spoiler tag - we're warned repeatedly that it doesn't end well) and here's the big woop - it's narrated by Death. Ooh. Actually I didn't mind too much. I thought it was an interesting way to tell the story of a time when death was ever-present. Except it got old. It got old real fast. Not because Death was a poor narrator but because he described the situation from a very impartial and removed place. I felt like it was a step too far away from the characters personally. Basically he's relating the diary or life story which Liesel wrote. Imagine someone trying to recount someone else's diary to you, from memory. They would get the facts right, they would probably be able to tell you dates and times and places but the emotion would get completely lost in translation. Unfortunately I feel like emotion has been death's victim in this case. Why couldn't we have just read Liesel's book for ourselves? There might have been a lot less telling and a lot more showing, another crime this book is sadly guilty of. We might have been able to really know Liesel. Instead, everything we learn is secondhand. Secondhand through Death. Yeah, not a fantastic point of view from which to experince human emotion and life.


Death also has this irritating habit of adding little notes, or asides which interrupted the flow of the story, was distracting and pointless. For example, he was giving us dictionary definitions of words which added absolutely nothing to the story, and which I began to skip. I guess the author did this for dramatic effect. I think this was a bit short sighted. The setting and era (written in the right way) would have been dramatic enough without adding silly gimmicks. It's a bit insulting to the drama and suffering that occurred during and after World War 2 to feel the need for any additional histrionics. But somehow the author achieved the almost unachievable - despite these dumb devices and little additions he still managed to make a tale of survival and loss during one of the greatest tragedies of human history seem dull. I enjoyed the kindness of Papa, I liked the mischief of lemon-haired Rudy. But that's all they were - kind and mischievous. And having such flat, cardboard-cutout characters made for some really boring reading. I wanted so much more from them!! If the author had spent a little less time waxing lyrical about the colour of death and the weather, and a little more time on developing well rounded, complex characters then we might be getting somewhere. But he chose to try and impress with his poetry and his ideas and for me, the whole thing fell flat on it's face.


Perhaps what made it fall so flat was the fake-ness of the thing. There is no Molching. There is no Himmel Street. And yet these tragedies described in the book happened. These horrendous things happened to real people but by setting The Book Thief in a made-up town, on a made-up street he made the whole story and it's characters feel made-up. Yeah sure, this is fiction so duh the characters are made-up, but one of the arts of writing fiction is to bring made-up characters to life. To make us feel their pain, feel their loss, feel their sorrow. Well sorry Markus Zusak - I'm not feeling it. I can't get my head around why he felt the need to use his fake town. The only conclusion I can reach is that he couldn't be bothered to do any research. Has Zusak visited Germany? I know he's Australian, but that's no reason why he couldn't have. We have air travel these days. But to be honest he wouldn't have had to have visited Germany. He could have used the internet, he could have talked to people, he could have gone to the library. Or maybe he was too busy thinking up ways to describe clouds as ropes? I'm getting a little snarky here, but this just bugs me no end because it destroys any integrity the story could have had.


I liked the fact that this was different to many other World War 2 stories I've read and heard in that it told the story of the ordinary people of Germany. We're so used to hearing the side of the allies, the story of the "Good Guys", that it's easy to forget that the civilians of Germany were the good guys too. They were simply living their lives when war was foisted upon them. However what Markus Zusak failed to include in his story was a plot. There was next to no actual plot arc. The story was very much a collection of anecdotes (much like the characters) which didn't really hang together very well. It felt almost as if he realised this and decided what the story needed was a big finish to prevent it from just dribbling on into nothingness. The end felt very gratuitous. There was no need for all the deaths. I understand the death of Rudy (somewhat) - I saw his fate as a symbol for the end of childhood, the end of innocence. As a metaphor for Liesel to stop her childish games and whims and petty thefts and to recognise that something huge was going on all around her. But Hans and Rosa?! Why? One of the themes of the book was family unity. Well the theme was completely blown out of the water when Zusak decided to have Liesel's loving family exploded to pieces. It's just didn't fit with the rest of the story. It felt emotionally manipulative and unnecessary. Particularly when there was no character development of Liesel as a result of this horrific tragedy as it took place in around the last five pages of the book.


Despite the fact that I'm saying I enjoyed reading a different angle on World War 2 from the German civilians point of view, there was still a disappointing volume of German shaming going on. I hate this. Why condemn an entire nation for the faults of a few? Germany was promised the earth by Adolf Hitler. He promised them greatness when they were desperate. They would clutch at any ounce of hope they could grasp onto following the devastation of the economy after World War 1 so why do we blame them for the evil he wreaked on humanity? The Book Thief does this less so than other wartime fiction but it still manages to creep it's way in there with the descriptions of the book burning, and some commentary on other residents of Molching. All we can ever do is the best we can. Everyone has their reasons for behaving so. I'm sure many people supported the Nazis through fear for their own and their family's safety. These people do not deserve to be condemned for this. Zusak went some way to expressing this, Hans Hubermann himself applied for membership of the party, but I don't think he went far enough. There's still a hint of distaste for the German people as a whole. Outside of our little cast of characters there's no real understanding of the magnitude of suffering occurring. Even the suffering of our own dear Hubermanns and Stieners is somewhat trivialised. I never felt a real sense of urgency or terror. Even over Max the Jewish fist-fighter. Even when the air raids began. The whole thing felt like a dream. This is where the writing style had a real negative impact. There was not nearly enough tension and hurting. It was all too light and whimsical. Whenever I've heard wartime stories before they've been powerful and frightening. They've hit me hard. But not The Book Thief which is bizarre as the suffering of the German people was immense. So yeah, my point was that despite this story being told from the opposite side than we're used to, it still didn't hit as hard as it could and it still felt like Zusak was saying "German people suffered, but don't worry - they didn't suffer as much as the allies" You're probably thinking I'm being dumb - all of Liesel's family died for Chrissakes! But hey, don't forget this is a made-up town, these are cardboard cutouts. If it had been set in a real German town I could have imagined this story happening to real German people. As it is, it wasn't and I can't.


I really wished that Zusak would shut up about this 6 million deaths business. Cheers for wiping the other 54 million deaths off the slate Mr Author!! My jaw hurt every time this count of 6 million was mentioned because it's so wrong. This book is aimed at teens, many perhaps just starting to learn about the atrocities of World War 2 in school and to give them the idea that it was less than it was is insulting. Also to give them the idea that only Jews were murdered is insulting. The Jewish people suffered horribly at the hands of the Nazis, and that should never be downplayed but homosexuals, black people, the mentally and physically handicapped and gypsies were also targeted. And most of Germany was appalled. It should never be thought that Hans and Rosa were special in their opposition of the Nazi party, but most German people were ignorant of the suffering that was being inflicted in their name and the rest were often too frightened to stand up and shout about it.


I sound like I hate this goddam book. I don't. I liked aspects of it, but as a whole I'm disappointed. I kept waiting to be blown away by it and I just wasn't. World War 2 was such a vastly important historical event. There's so much to be learned from what happened in terms of human endurance, bravery and tolerance and there's so much to be thankful for to those who fought or lost their lives for our freedom. I think it's a shame that Zusak somewhat failed to convey this. The route he chose to take was emphasising the power of words. That's all well and good but even this I didn't really feel. I supposed that Liesel used her reading as a form of escapism from the brutality around her. But we were never let in on what exactly Liesel was reading or how she felt about it. This is another fault of the gimmicky narration. I felt rather detached from her love of books. It was never fully expanded on. Liesel never used what she learned while reading to better herself or her life. She never related it to her existence on Himmel Street. The concept felt unfinished to me.


I thought the ending (the very ending, once we'd gotten over the death and destruction side of things) was great. It was hopeful and it was fitting. Though why Liesel ended up in Australia I guess we'll never know. Sorry to all the droves of people who loved this book, I can kinda see why you did. But for me it wasn't right. It wasn't how I thought it was going to be at all and instead I'm left with very mixed feelings.


Hope everyone has a fantastic new year!! Here's to a wonderful, magical and enlightening 2014!!


See y'all after!!