I’ll admit it: I can be a hater. Sometimes when I hear too much hype about a book/film/band I’m less inclined to check it out. Maybe I miss the pre-internet joy of being one of the select few to really love and appreciate something. Whatever the reason, when I heard everyone talking up Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, I didn’t want to read it. The front cover, after all, claims, “It’s the kind of book that can be life changing.” Seriously? No thanks. For my job, however, it’s best to familiarize myself with books that have worked, so I begrudgingly bought the paperback and shoved it on a shelf.
When I finally got to reading, it didn’t take long for me to concede that the book was special. In the simplest sense, The Book Thief is about a young girl who is taken into foster care in World War II Germany, learns to read and steal books, and who aids in hiding a Jewish man in the basement, although summing up the book like that is like saying Anna Karenina is about a woman and a train. It’s full of tragedy, joy, sorrow, humor, and everything else that makes up a terrific work.
I loved the idea of a story narrated by Death. I loved the staccato breaks within chapters, hitting the page like bursts of gunfire. I loved the multiple characters, and how we could jump from one section to focus on someone other than Liesel, the main protagonist.
After I’d been reading the book for two months, I was still only halfway through, and I was beginning to be heckled at home. “You’re still reading that?” said my detractor. The truth was, I didn’t want the story to end.
You see, while there are many surprises in the book, the one thing the reader knows is the ending. Death spells out what’s to come early on. And it’s almost with a sense of dread that I’d flip each page, knowing I’d be closer to the inevitable conclusion.
Not only that, but I was also reading slowly because the writing was so damned good. Navigating the pages was like searching a field of rocks for pieces of diamonds. Some of Zusak’s descriptions–“Rain like gray pencil shavings,” “The light in the window was gray and orange, the color of summer’s skin,” “My cursed circular heartbeat, revolving like the crime it is in my deathly chest”–made me stop and shake my head over the strength of the language.
Most of all, I loved the risks that Zusak takes. Making the narrator Death. Writing a complicated story set during WWII for young adults (although it was marketed to adults in Zusak’s native Australia). The sprawling nature of the work. In the hands of a weaker writer, these choices could have been disastrous. But not only did they work, they worked with the kind of terrific accomplishment that can only come from great risk.
The Book Thief is really a terrific novel, a hugely ambitious story that makes me pine for something 3/4ths as good landing on my desk one day.
And hey, it proves that many times it’s worth listening to the hype.