"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Review: The Book Thief

I've got quite a long backup of books I've finished but haven't reviewed yet, but let's start with one of the winners. The Book Thief has been much talked about and lauded, and the movie just came out this year (I haven't seen it). But the hype did nothing to diminish the impact this little book had on me. It really is one of the best books I've read in any of the genres it falls into: WWII stories, YA literature, books with experimental narrative voices. In particular, it was such a refreshing read after wading through some extremely clunky YA writing. [Side note/rant: My YA reading habit started as a welcome break from the heavy experimental fiction I read last year on my master's course. It morphed into an effort to familiarize myself with the YA section of the bookstore where I work. It has ended with annoyance at how the publishing industry ghettoizes and panders to teenage readers. But I digress....]

In case, by some chance, you haven't heard of this book, some orientation: The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, from the year she is adopted by the Hubermanns, a kind couple in a small town outside Munich, to the year that allied bombs start falling on that town. During that time, Liesel learns to read and grows from a child to a young woman. It's quite a modest scope of action, but set against the backdrop of WWII, it obviously takes on a larger meaning.

The book's seemingly small scope distinguishes it from the immense number of books published about WWII (I didn't realize quite how many there are until I lived in England, where that particular portion of history is still extremely vivid for many people). It doesn't set out to tell the whole story of the war or to encompass the entire (and unencompassable) tragedy of it. It doesn't even try to tell the whole story of Liesel's life. Her early childhood, before the Hubermanns adopt her, and her life after the war would probably be just as book-worthy, but Zusak chooses to focus on just the slice of her life that intersects with the war.

In fact, it's not really the war Liesel's story intersects with, but rather that of the other main character, a personified Death who narrates the book. It's rare to find a book with a really interesting narrative point of view, now that first person, collective voices, and unreliable narrators have all been tried out and worn out. But Zusak handles his conceptual narration extremely well. He often allows us to forget about it and immerse ourselves in the story but never actually breaks character, so that, when Death reassert itself as the point of view, it's never jarring.

This device also allows him to do justice to the wider historical significance of the events in the book, because Death, as we are constantly reminded, was kept very busy during the war years. To Death, Liesel's story is a distraction, but a welcome one that represents a glimmer of humanity amid the rampant inhumanity of war. That, in essence, is the function of almost every WWII story out there. Through the framing of Death's narration, however, Zusak acknowledges that directly. The taking on of Death as a narrator turns out not to be a presumptive literary trick, but a way toward greater humility in telling a single story, especially that of a German, during WWII.

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