Occasionally, you will read a novel that offers you new ideas about what a novel can actually do, how point of view and voice can be used differently but powerfully, and how characters can be developed to such an extent that they seem more human than those we come into contact with each day. This seems to be the case with Markus Zusak’s 2005 novel, The Book Thief. I first read it on a recommendation from a librarian friend, and now find myself talking about it at great length to anyone who will listen (if you listen closely, you can hear my students start to groan…until they start reading it, that is). With any luck, I’ll get it on my reading list at the school I teach at by next year. It’s that kind of good.
The novel centers around the experiences of a young girl in World War II-era Germany. Contrary to my initial prediction, the girl, Liesel, is not Jewish but instead the orphaned daughter of two communist parents who were ostensibly murdered when finally caught by the Nazis. In any event, they never appear, which becomes painfully obvious during one particularly heartwrenching episode. Liesel spends most of the novel in the home of two poor but well-meaning foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, who are patriotic enough not to be arrested, but dissenting enough that Hans has been refused admission to the Nazi party. Thus, through Liesel and the Hubermanns, we get a point of view of Nazi Germany to which we’re not readily accustomed: not of the depraved and defiled victims of the Holocaust, nor of the gung-ho fundamentalist “Heil-Hiterl!”ing-every-five-seconds Nazis; but instead of those we rarely if ever hear from, those caught in the uncomfortable and inescapable middle.
Oh, and the narrator.
Zusak manages (ingeniously, I should add) to blend first- and third-person omniscient narrators by making his Death (with a capital “D,” as in the Grim Reaper), an intriguing if not entirely surprising choice given the novel’s setting. Through Death, we not only get Liesel’s thoughts, feelings, and actions ( as well as those of the others who come into the tale on occasion) but also his own: we get to see just how much he hates his job and yet simultaneously sees the necessity of it; we see how he reacts when he comes to collect his quarry (positively tear inducing, as in a sequence near the beginning when he describes what it was like to have to collect the small, limp, and sickly body of Liesel’s younger brother); and we get to know some of his curious personality traits (would you ever think that Death would be obsessed with–of all things!–colors?). Zusak’s choice of narrator is at once utterly risky and entirely genious–after all, we could have been stuck with a morose and altogether boring narrator. Instead, we have a perfectly round character who seamlessly melds the first- and third-person point of view.
Novelists can have a nasty tendency to develop one or two main characters and leave the rest flat and uninteresting (case in point: essentially anything by the Clive Cussler’s and Jackie Collins’ of the contemporary scene–they fail to realize that people, not just plot, are interesting; unfortunately, many readers these days fail to realize this too). Zusak seems to suppress this urge however and manages to give us an entire cast of characters–including primary, secondary, and even tertiary characters–who are all very round and therefore very interesting. Take, for instance, the hunched-over old man named Pfiffikus, who at first seems to just be a cranky, foul-mouthed old codger but who we eventually find to be genuinely proud of his heritage. Then there is the Mayor’s wide, who appears at first to be a paper-thin cutout of a character until we learn the reason for her projected flatness of character. And we could also discuss Tommy Mueller, a boy from the Hubermann’s street who had so many ear infections (and operations on these ear infections) as a younger child that he has since been left with scars and an ever-present twitch.
Think that’s a lot of information about a few characters? Here’s the kicker: Pfiffikus, the Mayor’s wife, and Tommy Mueller are not even main characters! But they were developed believably and interestingly enough so it seems they are, or should be.
This does not by any means imply that the main characters are boring stereotypes: they, too, are strikingly believable, and when the novel is finished, you genuinely feel as though they are people you know (or knew) from your own experiences. That is one of the most glorious aspects of this novel and–when it topples over its devastating denouement–one of the most tragic.
I have gone to great pains in this review to avoid giving away too much of the plot because seeing what unfolds for these people you feel you know is another of the novel’s glorious aspects. However, the plot is perhaps the weakest link in the novel’s chain. The book is by no means predictable, but the only really eye-opening and fist-slamming-on-the-table event comes at the novel’s aforementioned denouement. The rest of the plot does seem to drag a bit in places, but I suppose this comes naturally in the balance when you have such juicy and unforgettable characterization. Actually, that the plot is as good as it is with fantastic characterization like we are presented with is something of a miracle.
In the year to come, this novel will rest on top of professors’ shelves and “Best” lists alongside the likes of To Kill a Mockingbird, Ulysses, and Great Expectations. Certainly, you will be hard pressed to find a novel of this caliber much of anywhere on the current scene. Do yourself a favor: eschew The Book Thief‘s “YA” label and read it like the classic novel is already stands out as.