Monday, January 03, 2011

Caution: 'The Book Thief' may win your affection

Zusak, Markus. the book thief. London: Doubleday, 2005.

I can name quite a lot of good Holocaust historical fiction, and I can think of many mediocre if not frustrating pieces of historical fiction as well, and while Zusak's The Book Thief falls squarely in the first category, a large part of its excellence is derived simply from its very fresh and original construction.

The Book Thief is told from the perspective of Death (granted, not entirely original) and structured around protagonist Liesel's acquisition of books. Her first book, The Gravedigger's Handbook is stolen immediately after the death of her younger brother, setting the tone most exquisitely for the remainder of the Zusak's novel. Each of Liesel's books sets the tone for a new stage of her life, and allows us, the readers, to glimpse a new aspect of her character. As a young girl and then young lady growing up in Nazi Germany, Liesel's life is perpetually lived in the shadow of death, here symbolised by her ownership of The Gravedigger's Handbook. With this inauspicious tome, she is taught to read. With her later acquisition, actually a banned book, she learns the freedom of reading without censorship. As Zusak's novel progresses, Liesel's books help her survive her fears, make new friends, and learn to understand herself and the world around her more clearly. Furthermore, as platitudinous as my previous sentence may sound, Zusak's novel is mostly free of sentiment: death occurs, and narrator Death at times grows slightly tedious, but the book remains remarkably well focused on the story of Liesel and her ever-expanding worlds.

Alongside its narration of a very good story well-crafted and composed, my copy of this novel is a large hardback, which reproduces beautifully in the middle several manuscript books Liesel acquires for her collection. I am a little afraid that the elegance of these illustrations and the stories they tell would be lost in a mass market paperback, and so would encourage anyone interested in The Book Thief to fins a hardback or very large paperback copy. ((This seems to be a nice hardback edition, although I prefer the UK cover)).

My greatest complaint about this book is that the layout is overwrought: the most 'important' aspects of the story are conveyed in large bold print, sometimes in all caps, and often surrounded by a fleur de lis or two. These can, again, be attributed to the occasional annoyances of narrator Death, whose interjections only occasionally border on the irksome, but fortunately for Zusak, the plot and the construction of the book are strong enough that the failings of his narrator may be mostly overlooked. It is worth enduring the messenger to read the remarkable story he tells.

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