It’s important at the outset of this review that I make it clear that I’m not one for “young adult” fiction. For the most part the phrase is used as an indicator that the book in question will contain supposedly “relatable” material for teenagers and preteens, which in translation inevitably means insulting reductions of the experience of the world to improbable morality tales and life lesson stories which have been safely cleansed of all the ugliness that the rest of us would define as “real life”. There are a handful of exceptional authors who defy this stereotype, but I couldn’t name a one of them to you because the whole genre tends to push those of us who are well read and interested in great literature to arm’s length with its sanitized plots and characters and its tendency to resort to simplistic diction and dull, repetitive syntax which insults even average “young adult” readers right out of the library because someone decided they should pass through this gauntlet of a genre before being handed something interesting to read.
My point in spouting angry bitterness is this: Zusak’s phenomenal, devastating The Book Thief has been unfortunately categorized as a work of young adult literature, which I have to think at this point has kept it out of thousands of adult hands who would likely name it the best book they’ve read in the past few years and possibly add it to that more significant list every devoted reader makes--the list of books you insist everyone you know simply must read. It’s sensible enough that a publisher would want to toss the book into the category; the protagonist, Liesel, is a beautifully relatable young girl whose relations with the other children on her street in the shadow of Hitler’s Third Reich make for mesmerizing snapshots of childhood, which tends to look somewhat the same regardless of where it grows—somewhat the same, though not completely. Liesel’s adoptive father and mother take in a jew, a young man named Max with a wild head of hair and wilder imagination. His interactions with the little girl who can’t help but peek down the stairs at such vibrant humanity slowly wasting to skeletal form (if not spirit) sets the stage for a remarkably open and honest story about the horrors and miracles of what we call “humanity”. Their relationship roams uncertainly through the time period and through the stages of childhood and slow death; courses of progress which Zusak portrays with a confident certainty which carries the tale.
Most impressive is Zusak’s decision to choose an “unreliable narrator” the likes of which we’ve rarely seen in literature: The story of the book thief (Liesel—her identity is not the story’s secret) is recounted to us with a mixture of sadness and tired resignation by Death himself. He carries no scythe here; only armfuls of souls which he occasionally takes the time to describe to us with something just short of sympathy. If the choice of narrator sounds like something of a gimmick, I assure you that impression will be dispelled before you finish the first chapter. “First the colors. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things,” he tells us in the book’s opening lines. Zusak understands the uniqueness of Death’s role as a constant observer of humanity who allows for untainted observation of the peculiarities and particularities of what we would describe as “the human experience” without having anything like a human ability to make sense of that condition. His observations of The War, therefore, are neither angry nor bitter nor sad (though perhaps some version of the latter reveals itself from time to time); they are simply statements of what is and the ways in which it doesn’t differ that much from what has always been.
The key to The Book Thief becoming something transcendent though is the coupling of Death’s confused, detached (though not indifferent) narration with the story of a little girl. It is the story of a human being who is not old enough to understand how the world can overflow with such horror as to be entirely overwhelming, as told by a narrator with many of the same questions as young Liesel, as he collects the souls left in the swath cut by those very horrors she is forced to live through. The brilliant simplicity of this pairing makes for most of the book’s finest moments. Death’s diction is simple and concise—not unlike a child’s view of events she does not understand. When Liesel remembers a lost loved one, Death recounts it in the simplest and coldest terms: “He died on a train. They buried him in the snow.” Each statement its own paragraph, each paragraph its own singular, horrific image. Death, it turns out, also has an affinity for dramatic asides to help drive his point home. The interruptive nature of his mini-lessons (he informs us quite clearly and individually on page one that we are going to die and that this is entirely fair) provides constant thematically-strategic jarring blows to the reader; none of them is wasted and few of them are subtle or without import. Take, for example, his “GUIDED TOUR OF SUFFERING”: “To your left, perhaps your right, perhaps even straight ahead, you find a small black room. In it sits a Jew. He is scum. He is starving. He is afraid. Please—try not to look away.” I defy you to find such forwardness in another work of young adult fiction; the painful honesty of the diction is at times too much for even an adult reader to bear—Zusak is capable of the emotional straightforwardness in the face of unspeakable horror that bold writers like Cormac McCarthy have built their greatest works upon. Zusak is simply a bit more thematically hopeful about humanity at the end of the day.
While Death’s diction and syntax are simple at face value, they carry in them a subtle touch of something inhuman—the words are sometimes not quite right, or quite natural, as when Liesel “sprayed her words directly into the woman’s eyes” when she loses her temper. The effect over the course of the book is something like unnerving—you begin to feel the foreign nature of the narrator and realize just how estranged he is from the goings-on of The War and other human miseries he visits ceaselessly. It makes the moments of human dialogue and storytelling (several characters create works of their own in the story, provided unabridged and beautifully rendered as part of Zusak’s narrative) much more comforting and impactful than they might have otherwise been. Max, the jew Liesel’s family is hiding, her adoptive father, and Liesel herself, all get to exercise their use of words as a form of empowerment, to varying and fascinating (and gorgeous) degrees of success.
All of it plays masterfully into Zusak’s motif of words and language and their power: Death recognizes quite clearly that words have brought Hitler into power, and that as Liesel learns to read she too is gaining in power (consider his nickname for her in the first place—“the book thief”—a stealer of words) in a place where there is precious little for her to gain. The payoff of this devotion to the idea of words as a source of power, strength, and influence rewards the reader with more moments of beauty and tearful tragedy than I would think to spoil for you here. Suffice to say that if you are a reader prone to dog-earing pages containing beautifully rendered language or favorite moments, you’ll find the book’s corners doubling in thickness before you’re a third through it, but it will matter little because by the time you’re that far in you probably won’t put it down very often until you’ve finished it.