I like a little sugar in my tea, a smidgen of cheese on that cracker, some garnish on a salad (but not too much) and ... (running out of food metaphors)... something novel in a novel.
In my, albeit limited experience, popular Young Adult Literature can often be loosely defined in terms of a product/consumer relationship i.e. the author does the hard work so I don’t have to. In the case of ‘The Book Thief’ Zusak has most definitely done the hard work, but if I thought I was in for an easy ride I was very much mistaken!
This book is intricate and complex. It is subtle and beautiful. It is quizzical and enigmatic. It is brimming with childlike perspicacity and humble truisms. It is experimental. It is heartbreakingly sad. It is in part hope and in part despair. Most of all, it is important and thoroughly worthwhile. I can think of very few books which I would trust to break the news of WWII to a young mind in any meaningful way, without scarring it irrevocably or causing it to lose all faith in humanity – The Book Thief is now one of them.
Admittedly, I was unmoved by the first half. I felt I was thrown into an alien landscape of poetry in prose; of metaphors and similes and personification (even a casual mesimification here and there). Occasionally gauche and a little clumsy, occasionally graceful and nothing short of brilliant the idiosyncratic style served to keep me at arm’s length. Try as I might I couldn't sink into the story, I couldn't get lost in it – albeit admirable and striking, it was all too unnatural and unfamiliar.
I was about halfway through and beginning to wonder why I couldn't engage the way so many others had obviously done before me when something happened (something = an exchange of gifts between people with nothing to give) and a deathly claw emerged from the pages, grabbed me tight, pulled me in and never let me go.
On finishing the book, I wondered whether there was method in the beautiful, occasionally awkward, detached omniscience of the first half. I wondered whether it had served to strip me of my preconceptions and put me on a more equal footing with the transcendental narrator, only to draw me back in when I was ready and on the sole merit of its content. I wondered whether everyone experiences this book differently; if there are different points at which each and every reader is drawn in to the story. Evidently, there are a lot of people who were never drawn in at all. I wonder whether they, if they ever read it again, at a different time in their life, would feel differently.
This book does not tell you what to think. It doesn't tell you how and when to feel. It does not stand in judgement. Rather it invites you to think for yourself, it invites to feel for yourself and, most importantly, it invites you to judge yourself. The only side of the war that is really explored in this book is the human side. It is a story about the futility of war on an individual level. It is a celebration of life and its ability to bloom amidst such destruction. It is a study of the value of human courage and kindness, childlike disobedience and adult defiance, and the danger of their counterpoles. It paints a captivating picture of the contradictions of human nature, luminous against the dark background of WWII. Most importantly, it is a cautionary tale of the very real and ever-present threat posed by the chance meeting of unchecked antagonism with an eloquent and power hungry catalyst.
How do you convey such ideas to a young mind without scarring it irrevocably or causing it to lose all faith in humanity? – Give them ‘The Book Thief’. For me, therein is the immense value of this book.