The Book Thief is quite an accomplishment. Five hundred and fifty pages of thought-provoking text in a very unique, slightly jarring style, all narrated by Death. The originality of this book made waves a few years ago, and that’s pretty hard to do. It’s a story of words. Words that prompted a Fascist regime, and words that helped a young girl survive it.
Liesel Meminger lives in the outskirts of Munich with her foster Mama and Papa and a whole list of quirky neighbors. When she first came, she could not read. She learns during the early years of WWII, and as life grows more difficult, as she matures and grasps the wickedness surrounding her, she appreciates the power of language and its ability to destroy and to heal. It’s words that bind her to Papa. Words that fuse her to the Jew in their basement. Words that whipped the whole country into an uproar. Words that link her in crime to her best friend (and perfectly endearing character) Rudy. Words that so captivated an overworked Death that he noticed this one child out of millions and chose to share her story.
Zusak’s style is very peculiar, and I really didn’t care for it. Death has a scattershot approach, sharing broad, shocking revelations at the beginning of each break, then revealing them each in more detail while intermixing random, highlighted thoughts throughout. It’s a talk-about style, circling, pausing, circling, and finally honing in on details. Eventually everything fits together into an airtight package, but I found the flow disruptive and distracting.
The word choices Zusak employs are as original as his cadence. A “twitching” popped ball. “Slinging an armful of soup.” A “white and warm” haze. “Cherries of blood.” Smoke that “climbed her teeth.” Tears that are “wet streams of wire.” Interesting word choices. Sometimes even shocking word choices.
Surprisingly, for such a serious topic, the book includes a fair amount of humor. Not laugh-out-loud humor, but lip-wrinkling wit. Death has a very dry and morbid funny bone. For example, “For some reason, dying men always ask questions they know the answer to. Perhaps it’s so they can die being right.” And, “It kills me sometimes, how people die.”
Zusak is an amazing writer. His style, his word pictures, his wit. I haven’t even gotten to his characters, and I won’t, but they are amazing too. And so is his fluency in profanity–in both English and German. Amazing. Astounding. Creative–I’ll give him that. Mama, in particular, has a flare for the obscene. Excessive. Inappropriate. Unfortunate.
So, while I didn’t really enjoy his style, I found Markus Zusak phenomenally talented. I liked many of his ideas, I appreciated his remarkable effort, but the language is such that it makes it difficult for me to recommend this one to kids.