"The Book Thief"

For some reason, dying men always ask questions they know the answer to. Perhaps it's so they can die being right. (The Book Thief 469)
If there is any book that is getting more universal praise from bloggers than Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, then I don't know about it. Almost everyone who has read it (and then blogged about it) describes a profound, even transcendent, experience and praises the inventiveness of the writing. So (of course), I rushed off and got it from the library, delighted that (because Zusak is Australian) I could account for the pleasure of this read under the virtuous mantle of my "Year of Down Under" challenge.

At first I found it somewhat alienating: it is a tale of Holocaust-era Germany narrated by Death himself, who has an abrupt and unusual prose style, marked by verbal knots that are not quite neologisms but are certainly unsettling distortions of the words' normal use. But hey, he's Death (the argument goes), so why should he sound like a conventionally impassive narrator or obey the laws of grammar? In fact, he likes to throw the conventions of narrative structure to the wind as well (and I'm all for that), telling us in the opening chapters how this story will end, and regularly reminding us that major characters will inevitably die in gruesome, unfair ways. Rather than undermining our sense of suspense or empathy (which is not about the outcome, really - we are all going to die someday - but about how this outcome unfolds), this ratchets it up.

The story revolves around the childhood of young Liesel, whose mother leaves her with a cantankerous foster family to protect her from governmental retribution for her parent's politics and past. Along the way, Liesel develops a compulsive penchant for thievery, but one that is pretty exclusively played out in the realm of food and literature. My initial alienation (and even disengagement) ultimately gave way to an affection for Liesel and her friends (almost everyone in her town seems to be warm-hearted and to harbor secret anti-Nazi doubts), and by the end of the novel I was both rapt and moved.

But my initial discomfort with Death's narratorial gymnastics (which many consider to be the great strength of the novel) never passed: I found myself dreading his abstract interventions in Liesel's story, which tended to cast it in a rather melodramatic, even maudlin light. Often, his linguistic convolutions seem to me to be overwrought, or (more specifically) too obviously wrought, too self-consciously artsy. (I hasten to add that I am no opponent of formal innovations and eccentricities.) But in young adult literature as in other genres, I will always support overwrought attempts at complexity over mere submission to convention.

The Book Thief (Australia, 2005)
Markus Zusak

A Chunkster AND a "Year of Down Under" candidate! Hurrah!