This is the second time that I’ve reviewed the lesser known book by an author before the more well-known one, using that review to just mention the well-known book. I reviewed Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck before The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and then I reviewed Markus Zusak’s The Messenger before The Book Thief. Mostly, this is because because the well-known books – these incredible stories by both Selznick and Zusak – seem almost untouchable because of their notoriety, their recognition through awards (Hugo Cabret picked up the Caldecott and The Book Thief was a Prinz Honor Book), and their popularity with readers.
But then again, to call The Messenger and Wonderstruck “lesser known books” seems a little ridiculous, which goes to show just how important these “well-known books” are.
Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is a book that is a huge, wild undertaking, and it seems possible to talk about it only in small parts, diving into various meaningful moments because the overarching story is so intricate, complicated, and unparalleled. Even the plot summary is difficult to capture in a paragraph. Narrated by Death during WWII, The Book Thief focuses primarily on young Liesel Meminger, who is herself a self-named “book thief.” Death observes and notes the first time Liesel steals a book, The Grave Digger’s Handbook, which she finds on the day of her brother’s funeral. Liesel is taken in by a foster family, where she learns how to read the books that she finds, steals, and accumulates (and one she rescues from a book burning, risking everything in Nazi Germany because of the draw and magnetism of words). Everything that Liesel knows changes when her foster parents hide a young Jewish man in the basement of their house, when history, politics, and narratives begin to intertwine, drawing Liesel into the stories that she never thought she would be able to live and tell.
Liesel’s relationship with Max, the young Jewish man in the basement, quickly becomes the heart of the story. Or at least he shares that center part, this text and word version of how it is to look at a painting and find that you focus in on certain places and points. Young and not completely understanding of the situation between Germans and Jews, the careful negotiation of the relationship between Liesel and Max is at once heartbreaking and remarkable. Max illustrates a story he entitles The Standover Man on pages of Mein Kampf that he has painted over in white, and Zusak includes this in its entirety at the center of the novel.
Yet, Liesel’s friend Rudy is one of the most affecting characters in the novel. His story is set up using a strange method of revealing: Death frequently reminds the reader that Rudy is going to die. Rudy’s ending is revealed, and the tension comes from the reader having to continue to read the novel in order to get to this ending that we know is coming. Rudy is a vibrant character who “runs like Jesse Owens” and is one of the most brilliant examples of the juxtaposition of youth and war.
And then there is Death’s narration. A device that could be distracting and obvious instead treats the subject matter with the thoughtfulness that it deserves. I was wary of this narration going into the novel, particularly because the only experience I had with Death as a narrator was from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, where it is used much more humorously and ironically. This is different from the first person narratives of WWII that come from novels and memoirs, and different still from the third person narration of present day authors who set their novels during WWII. This is something that sits between the two, an almost-second-person, a perspective that isn’t seen regularly in novels. This difference is exactly what is necessary to insist that this is a new perspective: this is a new way to examine WWII and the Holocaust through literature.
The reason I think I’ve put off this review, even though this is one book that I would like to share the most, is that not being able to capture it precisely seems to not say anything at all about what this book is. I can’t recommend this book enough, but leaving this review with Zusak’s own writing provides the best reason for reading:
"For now, Rudy and Liesel made their way onto Himmel Street in the rain.
He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world.
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 rain."