I am so profoundly affected by this book that finding the words to describe how it moves me is proving quite the challenge. Knowing that the subject matter is a street (ironically named “Heaven”) in Germany during World War II, and the families that lived there, I was not all that eager to pick it up. It seemed such worn out subject matter; I have read so many such books. I am thankful for my Pick a Year Challenge-The Book Thief was published in the author’s native Australia in 2005, my challenge year-otherwise this gem would have languished on my list for a very long time.
One central element gives the book its primary punch, and that is the inspired choice of the narrator-Death. In my minds eye he is not simply Death, but The Angel of Death, as he comes for the souls of those who have died. Through Death’s eyes the reader follows the other characters, in particular Liesel, a girl entering her teens as the war commences. The characters are rich and varied and clearly evolve as the ugliness of war comes to inhabit Himmel Street.
Zusak’s style reminds me a good deal of Cormac McCarthy’s. McCarthy uses short, sparse sentences to create the feeling of emptiness-destroyed physical desolation in the case of The Road and wide open spaces in the case of his Border Trilogy. Markus Zusak uses the same kind of minimalistic prose to capture the emotional desolation of his time and place, and the effect is stunning. I read one review where the writer stated that the prose felt overly simple, and therefore juvenile, and then she realized that this was a young adult book. My reaction is just the opposite. This writing style is perfect for creating the tone of the novel, and I feel regret that the book is not marketed as an adult book, expanding its audience.
As a teacher, I will be adding this book to our curriculum. In addition to the various themes: survivor guilt, good even among the evil, and love, there is also some interesting symbolism stemming from books and an accordion. The elements are easy for high schoolers to clearly see yet woven deftly enough to make this a powerful, mature read for adults young and old. My one warning would be that some might find the language a bit on the strong side.
I would be absolutely remiss in ending this review without high praise for the narrator of the audio version. Allan Corduner’s performance as the narrator, Death, is marvelous. Each character is infused with their own distinct personality, and his German accent is excellent. My one, very slight, complaint might be that Liesel’s voice is a tad bit sappy. This would be a good book to listen to with a print copy in your hand. You won’t want to miss the narration, but you will want to be able to read with a pencil in hand to mark the many memorable phrases.
This book will definitely be among my top three fiction titles read this year and might very well snag the top spot. Very highly recommended!