Two disclaimers – First – I just got punched in the face and brain by a cold so if this isn’t the best thing I’ve ever written, blame the germs.
Second – I am WAY behind the times. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak came out in 2006 and I just now read it. Because I am lame.
If you, like me, haven’t read this book yet – now would be the moment because the movie exists in the world now and… I have to say – I don’t think it is possible to turn this wonderful, amazing, gut wrenching book into any kind of decent movie. I fear that if you see the movie it will ruin this book forever and for all time. (I haven’t seen the movie, or even a trailer for the movie, so I could be wrong. But… Honestly other people who have read it – how… How can you translate even half of the power and magic of this book into anything meaningful on a movie screen?)
Okay, lamentations aside, because ultimately I am glad it’s a movie if only so that the author Markus Zusak gets more money for his work, let’s dive in.
I finished this book late at night a couple of nights ago. I didn’t review it right away because I just wanted to wallow in the feelings and thoughts that it left lingering on my brain.
This is one of those books that looks like it got humped by a rainbow paper porcupine now that I’m finished with it. In case you’re new here, I read with a stack of sticky tabs so I can mark things that stand out and go back to them again. Some books get more stickied than others. This one, I really had to restrain myself on so that it wouldn’t be completely swallowed in sticky tabs.
You’ll figure this out pretty quickly as you begin to read, so I suppose it isn’t a spoiler to tell you who the narrator is, though it was one of the most delightful surprises for me. Oddly, in all the people who had talked it up, none of them had mentioned this aspect and for me it was one of the things that made the book so amazing, as well as being one of the reasons I’m not sure a movie version is really workable.
This whole book, this whole story is narrated by Death. Big D. Death. In the “flesh” so to speak.
The book is set during the Nazi years in Germany and carries on through World War II. The story follows a young girl through those hard times, through the death of her brother, the loss of her mother, the acquisition of a new family… Through awakenings and learnings and struggles and small enlightenments.
“Like most misery, it started with apparent happiness.” This line should have been the hook for the whole story. It’s such an exquisite misery though. So tender and loving as it tears your heart out.
If you follow me on twitter, you know that as I read this book, I cried. A lot. Often in public. But, I also laughed a lot. And gasped. And cheered. And then cried again.
The main character, Liesel, is known to Death as “the Book Thief”. And she endears herself to him in ways that are remarkable and touching and make you step back and look at all of humanity from a much broader perspective.
Death holds a deep and enduring respect for Liesel. “An eleven-year-old girl is many things, but she is not stupid.” This basic idea, this basic premise, that whatever else Liesel may be, stupid is not one of them, helps Death show her in ways that allow the reader to see her as a fully realized, highly nuanced person. Full of flaws and doubts and skills and passions and struggling – just as we all struggle – to make the best choices with the information we have at the time, to be the best people we can in the world we are thrown into.
The writing – oh my goodness – the writing is… gorgeous. Fluid. Flawless. And… tricksy. It has a way of making you SEE things in ways you never even thought to look.
Markus Zusak is a man I would very much like to have over for dinner.
On page 4, Death introduces himself. Though, as he says, we will all come to know him soon enough. “At that moment, you will be lying there (I rarely find people standing up). You will be caked in your own body.”
Caked in your own body… That was the first sticky tab I put in the book. I remember very clearly setting the book down on my pillow and just… feeling that. Feeling myself, caked in my own body. And for a moment, a brief, fleeting moment… I got it. Our bodies are just… masks. They’re temporary homes. And, on one hand, they are caking us – dulling our senses, keeping us separate from each other, from the greater universe… But, on the other hand they are also holding us, teaching us, showing us new ways of seeing, being, interacting. After all, without bodies, how could we really touch, hug, caress…?
Other lines stood out – things said in a twisty way that somehow made them all the more obvious and plain. “Trust was accumulated quickly, due primarily to the brute strength of the man’s gentleness, his thereness.” This line with its uncommon juxtaposition of brute strength and gentleness… It began the painting of another kind of manhood, another kind of masculinity. One that we see a little more rarely than I’d like. He is describing Hans Hubermann, Liesel’s foster-father. A man who despite all that is wrong in his world, remains steadfast and true to what he knows to be right, regardless of the hardship it brings him.
Another line, further in reminded me of one of my deepest held values. “If they killed him tonight, at least he would die alive.”
This idea, of dying alive… I get that. I feel it. It’s something I deeply understand and strive to achieve. And this book toys with it – having Death as your narrator allows you to explore so many different facets of the final act, so many ways of going. Death talks about the ones who would beg, plead with him to take them. But alas, he didn’t have time for them just then, didn’t they know there was a war on and he was busy. They would have to wait. They would have to suffer a little longer.
And then he talked about the ones, like Hans, who didn’t actively avoid him, nor did they taunt him or beckon him – instead they were just very good at being… overlooked in all the fray.
And then this:
*** A SMALL BUT NOTEWORTHY NOTE ***
I’ve seen so many young men
over the years who think they’re
running at other young men.
They are not.
They’re running at me.
Oh, oh yes! It hits you. Hard.
Or, as Death says, “It kills me sometimes, how people die.”
The Book Thief is not told in a linear fashion. It’s stories within stories within stories and side tracks that lead back to The Story, which is tucked inside yet another story.
Death delivers his own spoilers along the way, but as he reminds us, we know how this story ends, it ends the way they all do, with Death himself coming to take everyone away. We’re not reading to discover how it ends, we’re reading to discover the journey.
This is also a great book for writers to read, because it touches on so many of our personal demons, and offers exquisite and gentle encouragements.
“She was the book thief without the words.
Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain.”
Oh – I know that feeling. That slow stormy build up of words that swells into a flurry of inked precipitation splattered across the unsuspecting page…
I know the year has only just begun – and I’ve already read a string of great books. Heck, I’m already re-reading The Knife of Never Letting Go, this time out loud to my family, but for my money, I’ll bet early that The Book Thief is the best book I’ll read all year. I’m almost loath to pick up another book because… How can it compare?
Last – for those of you who care about politics and social justice and equality and basic human compassion… (You know, everyone following this blog, or why are you here?) This book delivers. If this post wasn’t already over long, I’d go into more of it, but I think for now I will just leave you with those tastes on your mental tongue. There’s a passage in this book that has inspired some deep swirling thoughts on these issues of humanity and power and language and justice and… I’ll come back to all of that with a fresh post.
In the meantime, if you haven’t already read The Book Thief – Now really is the moment. And I would urge you to read it before you see the movie. Let the beautiful language of Markus Zusak carry you through this story – these stories – the first time. Let Death wrap you in his gentle arms and show you the world as He finds it. Heartbreaking and inspiring and brutal and gentle and touching and bruising and haunting all at once.