Malcolm Everett's Reviews > The Book Thief

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
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Jul 29, 2015

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bookshelves: audiobooks, reviewed

After failing to slog through the abysmal and “experimental” style of Zusak’s other novel, The Messenger, I scolded myself for not picking up The Book Thief first. Although I gobbled up the prose and the details, the story still leaves much to be desired when it comes to action and complexity.

The Highs

Voice of Death: Like most readers, I enjoyed the conceit of Death as a narrator. I understand how his poeticism and arrogance might rub some readers the wrong way, but I think I have a positive bias toward that character archetype. In addition, I found Death’s definitions and asides to be interesting quirks rather than annoying gimmicks. Listening to Allan Corduner narrate the audiobook probably helped with the immersion.

Small Moments of Humanity: Zusak’s portrayal of the small moments that comprise a person and a place are the novel’s greatest strength. WWII is a backdrop rather than center stage, so the plot focuses on the daily interactions and struggles of the German people.

Everyone Has a Story I like it when novels explore the backstories of peripheral characters because it adds depth. However, this aspect of the novel might have contributed to its lack of focus and slow pacing.

Playful Prose: The author has a tendency to anthropomorphize emotions and inanimate objects in a way that I enjoy; he used this technique frequently in The Messenger as well, which was one of its few redeeming qualities. The style is just very readable and engaging. It’s like Death is inviting you to participate in the story as an outside observer. You become an omniscient reader with a companion to guide you on your journey.

The Lows

Lack of Focus: The story features a small-scale, episodic plot. While I do enjoy that structure, there needs to be some kind of momentum, some chain of events. I need the author to hint at where the story is going. As other reviewers have said, the ending almost feels like a copout, because there was no natural ending point for the plot.

Slow: This book could’ve been a more bearable length if some of the repetitive and extraneous scenes were omitted. I also wouldn’t have minded the length so much if Death hadn’t kept dropping spoilers. He openly admits to doing this, which makes for interesting characterization but not a very suspenseful reading experience.

Mawkish and Melodramatic: Too many times the narrator would make things sound more exciting than they actually were. He builds up your expectations, and you think there’s going to be this big moment, but all the action is very…quiet. The book thievery is not as dramatic as it sounds, either. But maybe that says something about how we like to give our stories inflated importance and assign meaning to the ordinary.

Also, there are so many novels about storytelling or the power of words and books. Although I can’t help but feel drawn to those narratives, it often seems like self-indulgence on the part of authors, like those who write about characters who are struggling writers.

A lengthy aside about sentimentality: My wife and I were watching a movie the other day, and although I was enjoying it, I kept complaining about its flaws. When we were deciding what rating to give it on IMDb, she was wavering between a 6 and 7, with me claiming it was between a 7 and an 8. She said that my commentary had made her think less of the movie, and I kind of hated myself for being such a Negative Nancy and distorting her perception of the story.

Honestly, I don’t want to be a jaded old codger, but it’s hard to view sentimentality in fiction as genuine. Readers often claim that they don’t like being “emotionally manipulated” by authors, but that’s a book’s primary function—to elicit emotion. There’s a part of me that resists fully engaging in a story, that’s embarrassed to allow words to control my reactions. I wanted to be in love with this story and get all weepy at the end, but I felt too distant.

Little Contribution to the Larger Conversation: The book’s message is a simple and familiar one, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, really. Still, I agree with other reviewers who have said that The Book Thief doesn’t add much complexity to what has already been said about the Holocaust. It feels like the topic needs a fresh perspective (see: Maus).

The Bottom Line: I’m hovering between three and four stars on this one, but objectively it feels like a four. It was like reading Stephen King’s The Stand: Way too long with a purposeless plot, but the style and intentions make me appreciate its literary merit.

Edit: Just finished watching the movie, which was a solid adaptation. My wife especially enjoyed it. The cinematography was great and the plot felt more linear, although some of the more interesting details were left out. Still a tad on the melodramatic side, but The Book Thief is an original story.

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Reading Progress

July 29, 2015 – Shelved
July 29, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
August 3, 2016 – Started Reading
August 8, 2016 –
36.0% "The writing style is what propels me forward more than anything else."
August 13, 2016 –
64.0% "Enjoying this one, although it has a very small-scale plot."
August 15, 2016 –
73.0%
August 16, 2016 –
88.0% "This is longer than I thought. I want to finish so I can watch the movie!"
August 18, 2016 – Shelved as: audiobooks
August 18, 2016 – Shelved as: reviewed
August 18, 2016 – Finished Reading

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