RATING: 4 STARS
REVIEW (minimal spoilers):
I’m haunted by this book, I truly am. It breaks my heart as well as lifts it up. We see so many diverse characters – some good, some bad, but all different shades of humanity. In essence this book is a long contemplation about what it means to be human and also a story about growing up, about defeating various obstacles (internal as external). That the narrator is Death does not bother me or strikes me as something worth dwelling on – it adds a twist to the story but it (he, she? – I’ll stick with neutral) is simply an observer even though it takes away the souls of the deceased.
We see the very worst and the very best of people – Nazi Germany certainly is the perfect place and time for such a narration. Childhood in the 30’s and 40’s could be nothing less than harrowing – on one hand you have deep indoctrination of the society and fear of reprisal, on the other is the compassion inherent in any human being. I firmly believe that we are all born with the potential to develop into decent, compassionate people, but that some have a harder time holding on to these morals as they are faced with our imperfect world. Sometimes it is easier to give in than to retain the moral high ground…
Short episodes seem to be a good way to tell the story; they offer us a greater level of intimacy with the characters since we’re not bothered by the minutiae of WWII like battles, geography and other historical facts. This is a story about people making the best of what they have, of people who never lost their humanity, their compassion, not a story about ‘glorious’ battles or high military commanders. We get to see a different Germany – a small town, a few streets really, the everyday people. Of course, Himmel Street being the poorest part of the town does give us a look at the circumstances that were responsible for the rise of Nazism, but we meet staunch supporters, neutral observers, careful rebels, and not a few opportunists, which is quite a decent portrayal of the entire country in a nutshell.
Liesel, the titular book thief, is a complex character. She is traumatized by the death of her younger brother and the separation from her mother. Her father most likely dies in the camps, though we’re never really told nor about her mother. Her adoptive parents do a good job taking care of her, and she slowly learns to read and write. I loved the way Hans (adoptive father) and Liesel connected over books and writing – it was a truly heart-warming relationship. In some way this is the essence of the novel, just like her relationship with the neighbour’s boy Rudy. He’s a character, no mistake. I liked him very much and all the crazy stunts he pulls off. At first you think he’ll be just an ordinary brat then he goes and steals your heart. I love such literary characters.
Max the Jew is another tragic person in this story; I’d say there is no other type of character to be found here, so be warned – tissues at the end, definitely. I cried; I’m not ashamed to admit it. Max helps Liesel to read and she helps him to cling to sanity. The way she gravitates to him and touches his life is truly a wonderful thing to behold. The short stories he writes for her and the drawings he uses to rebel against the people who robbed him of his worth as a human being are both a gift and a lesson to Liesel. He pours out his sorrow and heartbreak and in turn gives the girl a great lesson in the strength of compassion and friendship. I loved these parts of the novel, experimental writing or not. It worked for me, but not for all.
Some readers seem to be really bothered by Death’s description of the sky when it transports souls. Yes, the unusual descriptions of colours are something you need to take with a grain of salt, but they do tell you something about Death. It is fascinated with small things, a childish view of the world. And while most of the descriptions sound kind of bonkers, just remember that everything – object, smell, sound – has a connotation to memories. You might smell something disgusting (like an organic waste can) and be reminded of times you spent with your grandparents or friends (spending time on a farm, for example). Not everything our brain comes up with makes sense on first sight, but taking in account the emotion behind such a comparison explains a lot. Just a though.
I did dislike the way Death keeps reminding us that something bad is about to happen or reveals important plot points in the early chapters; it’s hard to keep the tension in the novel high when you blurt out things in advance – I wonder why editors did not demand that rectified. Also, the ending chapter left so many things unsaid, unexplained. We deserved more than we were given; making people read more than 500 pages makes it kind of an obligation to wrap up things nicely. Where is her mother, what happened to her adoptive parent’s children etc. We’re never told.
The sudden Duden Dictionary quotes in the latter part of the book really bothered me since they felt forced and completely unnecessary. They broke the narration and the emotions. It seems the author was desperate to find something new or unusual to remind us of his more experimental writing in the early chapters. It didn’t work, especially since the scenes he describes are brimming with strong emotions and hidden currents. We smell the danger, the regret…we don’t need a dictionary explanation to illustrate what we are experiencing or seeing right now.
Experimental writing and some flaws notwithstanding, this book is worth your time. I recommend it to anyone looking for a story that will both amuse and sadden you.
At first I loved it enough for 5 but the last chapters made it a 4.