13 January, 2009

'The Book Thief' - Markus Zusak

I should preface this by confessing I have a tendency to dislike a certain type of bestseller - the runaway success, from an 'unknown' author, commonly set in an historical context, and frequently issued in a bulky volume with a cover designed to stand out at Borders. To wit, Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind, a book that shares many characteristics with The Book Thief. Both are hefty volumes running to almost 600 pages; both take books and the power of words as a key motif; both use Europe and war as a backdrop; and both view all of this through the eyes of a young protagonist. Most interestingly, both authors had published young adult literature before achieving international success with a book for adults.

Zusak is an Australian author, of Austrian/German parents. His novel's narrator is Death, an apt character to observe the lives of a small town of Germans in the 1940s. In the book's opening passages, the protagonist, Liesel, is travelling with her mother and brother to a foster family. Along the way, Death visits and takes Liesel's six-year-old brother. She never sees her mother again. Her foster father, Hans, is a gentle accordion player and his wife, Rosa, is a foul-mouthed, hard woman, who softens enough to shelter a Jew in their basement.

Aside from the unusual choice of narrator (which works surprisingly well), the novel's most prominent characteristic is the prolific use of simile and metaphor, often mixing senses - such as the sound of a smell - or using unexpected personifications - 'the music would look Liesel in the face'. The technique results in some beautiful, effecting imagery and emotion. At a Nazi book burning - a potent image as books are a treasure to Liesel - 'the orange flames waved at the crowd as paper and print dissolved inside them. Burning words were torn from their sentences'.

The richness of the language does, however, start to resemble that feeling at about 4pm on Christmas Day, when you've been snacking copiously since lunch and know that another multi-course meal is but hours away. It's not that you don't enjoy the food, and there's nothing wrong with its quality, but there's frankly too much of it. At times the book felt like a performance from a too-clever public speaker; I was often desparate for a passage of simple substance, rather than grandeur.

Most off-putting, for a book focused on language, was the way German was used throughout the novel. I was sceptical at some of the translations that feature late in the book, but given the author's parentage, I'm reluctant to question them. What was frustrating was the way a character would speak a line of German dialogue then simply repeat it, as part of the same string of dialogue, in English (for example 'Vielen Dank, meine Herren,' Franz Deutscher politely said. 'Many thanks my gentlemen.'). It seemed a clumsy, lazy method of incorporating the foreign tongue and thereby lessened its effect.

More effective were the frequent asides from Death to address the reader, reminding them of details of the unravelling story that they already knew (there are many flash-forwards), allowing them to share in the narrator's omniscience - a canny way to keep the reader engaged.

Like a green salad that steals the show at a banquet, it was the simpler things I appreciated in this book. The fact that amongst Liesel's passion for words and the extreme emotions and events of war, the most powerful phrases were still 'I'm sorry' and 'Thank you'. It's easy to understand the novel's success given the innovative style and patches of truly glorious writing, but I would have taken a shorter, tighter story of skilled words over so much clever trickery.


  1. The book is very powerful.I had to read it as a summer reading asignment.

  2. The wonderful imagery that Zusak creates in his writing is amazing. It's one of the main reasons why I love this book.
    I, personally, don't agree with your statement that fancy language is used too much. Many people do have their different opinions but I want to present you with another. I actually think that, as I am a very enthusiastic reader, I hardly noticed the imagery until we started studying and analysing it in English.
    I believe that there is actually quite simple language in this book but our opinions, again, may differ as to what 'simple' is. Zusak's use of unexpected short sentences are those that I see to be simple. When I try to think of what you mean by 'simple', I tend to lean towards sentences such as "the cat sat on the mat". Maybe not so simple as that, but, well, do you know what I'm trying to say? I think that if more basic sentences were used, it would degrade the quality of the novel.