Monday, April 14, 2008

"Why Should I Read...?"

The Book Thief
Markus Zusak, 2005

"Why Should I Read...?" is normally stocked with books I have read and loved repeatedly. The Book Thief forces its way onto the list on the basis of the single reading I finished yesterday. Like The Time Traveler's Wife, another book on the list on the basis of one intense experience, The Book Thief is sui generis--not always a good thing.

The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young German girl growing up in Munich in the early years of World War II. On one level it's a standard coming of age story: as the war unfolds, Liesel learns about life, death and human nature--as well as finding her voice as a writer. But Zusak takes some extraordinary risks with the material to lift it well beyond the normal Bildungsroman. The story is narrated by Death--a Death wearied by humanity's constant ability to overwork him. He becomes drawn to Liesel's story as she and her foster-family struggle through the war.

Most writers, in scoping a story of this sort, would try to spin out the narrative tension. Liesel's family is harbouring a Jew in the basement: what will happen to them all? Zusak, using Death's omniscience as a narrative tool, tells us well in advance who's going to live and who's going to die; rather than draining the tension, this builds up a poignant foreboding. We know almost from the start that Rudy, Liesel's best friend, yearning to kiss her, will be killed in an air-raid. Rudy, obsessed with Jesse Owens and brimming with life, is one of the most sympathetic characters in the novel: his tragic destiny doesn't detract from the energy and decency of his life.

Zusak also allows Death some "facts" every few pages, where he'll elaborate on the characters' fates and his views on their lives. It makes for a risky kind of experiment, but it pays off. Although the narrative is tricksy, the plot is fairly straightforward: it would be hard to imagine Zusak's devices being as successful if the reader simultaneously had to puzzle out what was going on.

At times Zusak seems to strain over-hard for metaphor, but one sustained image works beautifully. Max, the Jew in the basement, paints over the pages of Hitler's Mein Kampf, and writes his own fable for Liesel on the newly blank sheets--although here and there fragments of Mein Kampf still poke through.

The ending is heartbreaking: although we know what's going to happen when the bombs fall, Zusak does not dissipate the emotional power of the moment: it will be stony-hearted reader whose eyes are not moist when Rudy finally, too late, gets his kiss from Liesel. Normally I am resistant to this kind of manipulation, but Zusak has spent 500 pages making us care about these characters, so he's earned the right to underscore the moment at the end.

Quite aside from his narrative choices, Zusak has entered a difficult field in writing a 'Holocaust novel' aimed primarily at young adults. He's to be congratulated for writing a story which never trivialises the subject, but remains accessible and doesn't lose sight of what everyday life must have been like for most Germans. This is a book which will be around for a long time to come.

How has it influenced me?
Some books are so singular they don't influence - they just are. This is one of them.

Lessons for the aspiring writer
  • even a young audience can tackle difficult themes if they are handled adroitly
  • narrative experimentation can pay off...
  • ... but if you are going to experiment here, it's best to keep everything else on an even keel
  • the greatest success can come from trying something no-one has done before
  • narrative voice is perhaps the single biggest decision a writer faces
  • a book which speaks to young adults can also have something to say to a wider audience


David Isaak said...

Uh-oh. My to-read list is getting longer.

Tim Stretton said...

Ha! What goes around comes around...