The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (Black Swan: 2007). A book set in wartime Germany and narrated by Death (a time and place when Death was, after all, pretty busy). It follows the lives of those living on an ordinary street as Germany descends into Nazism, and the bombs start falling. In particular, Death tells the story of Liesel, a nine year old girl who finds some solace in stolen books.
Reading on your commute to work every day puts you in a sort of unspoken book club. Everyone takes a furtive glance around at what everyone else is reading, and an inherent endorsement is given. See the same book being read more than once, and the endorsement grows.
There are constantly a few books that have snowballed to the point of being on pretty much every train. They’ve caught on to the extent that they essentially become “book of the month” in the commuter book club, and you can’t get on a train without seeing the same front cover stare back at you.
For my part, I usually avoid these books. I like the ones that I see once or twice; the ones that look interesting and different.
That’s not to say I’m immune to them though. My snobbery (I’m honest enough to know that’s what it is) is regularly undermined by the odd bestseller. I’ll defend John Grisham and Bernard Cornwell against most slurs. The mass market novel can be brilliant. Always entertaining, and occasionally incredibly moving.
A few years ago (2007 I think it was) The Book Thief was just that sort of book. You saw people reading it everywhere. I avoided it for a while, until I read the blurb on the back cover of a fellow commuter’s copy one day, and it intrigued me.
So I bought it. And I read it. And I was not disappointed.
It’s written in the first person, which is why I’ve picked it up to review – the book I’m currently reading is in the first person (as is the one I’m currently writing, incidentally). First person books tend to need some sort or quirk I think, and by making Death the narrator, The Book Thief certainly has that.
But that’s just the book’s first quirk. It has all the ingredients to be dangerously underwhelming. It’s set during the war. It follows the experiences of a little girl. It’s written in the first person. Cue the possibility for a cliché ridden narrative, full of manufactured heartbreak and hardship that could stick in the throat as a pale tribute to the true drama and loss of the time itself.
But Zusak avoids all this. He presumably knew the pitfalls of choosing to write a book with this background, and he ploughed on regardless. And he’s produced something that hits home in an authentic way. I don’t mean historically authentic (though I’m sure it is), I mean to say that the emotions and experiences he portrays hit the mark. You care about the girl and her life. You care about the people around her. You’re fully aware of the desperateness of Nazi Germany before you read a single page, but it’s written in such a voice and with such care that you feel you’re discovering it all for the first time. It makes you sad and angry all over again.
It’s for these reasons that I believe the book was so successful when it first came out. The issues are big, the backdrop familiar. But the treatment is original, and the emotion convincing.
All enough to earn
With a firm eye on the whole “would I recommend you to spend your time reading this” scale, I’m pretty confident with this one. It’s not going to embarrass me. If you haven’t read it already, go ahead and pick it up. If you don’t like it, tell me why not (I’m interested). And then go take a leap.