“Here is a small fact: You are going to die.”
This is not the opening line of The Book Thief. It’s the 5th or 6th, but it’s a grabber, no? And it just about sums about the book. The Book Thief is all about death. It’s set in WWII, Germany, features a young girl who’s parents are communists and gets sent to live a poor foster home. Not heavy enough for you? OK, then let’s make Death the narrator.
I’m probably unduly harsh to this book because the build up around it has been so big. An NPR poll just placed it at #10 of Best Teen Reads. #10! Really? Ahead of The Giver, His Dark Materials series, and The Earthsea cycle, and many other tremendous books.
Let me be clear: I think The Book Thief is a good book. It’s just not a great one. It deals with big ideas, features some wonderful characters, spins a compelling (albeit slow) storyline, and at times, the prose is amazing. But I couldn’t help feeling: hadn’t I read about this topic before and wasn’t it done better? Maybe I’m a purist but isn’t The Book Thief is a pale shadow next to The Diary of Anne Frank or Night by Elie Wiesel?
Perhaps whether you love or hate this book depends if you like the death as narrator thing. It didn’t really work for me.
While Zusak tries to disassociate death from the myth—death denies using a sickle or wearing robes—but he’s still a “person” running around the world collecting souls like some nightmare anti-Santa Claus.
I found it to be “too cute” of a device.
The novel is also overwritten in other ways—the 500+ pages is evidence enough. What I mean is Zusak often tries to tell the story in a specialized way for no apparent reason. For instance, Death fixates on colors. Interesting, but what does that have to do with anything?
One more thing you should know before you pick it up: the narrator often gives away what’s going to happen before it happens. Again this can work in novels (see all time great 100 Years of Solitude), but in The Book Thief it is done constantly. And this is a sad, sad book. (Did I mention it’s set in WWII Germany?) I don’t know about you, but there are only so many times I can be told that a favorite character is going to die before I stop caring.