I have been looking forward to reading this book for a while. It comes up now and again, especially on best books lists. It’s also titled The Book Thief, which sounds so exciting and so very bookish.
Let’s establish what this book is. It is a young adult novel about Nazi Germany. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. It is definitely read and appreciated by people of all ages (like Harry Potter). It is definitely fiction, though it is historical and gives insights that I had not yet encountered in any other Holocaust writing (though many that I had, too). And it is– what makes is stand out in writing style, which is a little hard to define—what I would call “gimmicky.”
I don’t necessarily mean gimmicky in a negative way, but there are times that I was annoyed at all the gimmick, in this particular book. I imagine that it is the gimmicks that make this book stand out, too, and what makes many people name it as their favorite book and read it over and over. You ask gimmicky how? Let’s see. It might be best for you to just read the book and discover the style for yourself, but I am going to give a little bit away: 1) the story is told from the point of view of Death (who sees emotions as colors); 2) the narrator consistently gives away punchlines long before they are reached, including the “ending,” 3) there are myriad breaks from the text, indented and font changed, as random notes. These could be definitions, observations, whatever.
Also, there are some dropped threads: maybe plotlines that could have been omitted altogether. And there are some really unclear moments, which I have come to believe is the most common pitfall of the writing life. Being unclear. (Some readers complain about the ending, too, which is a little ambiguous and reveals the undefined nature of the main character’s feelings, all the way through. And tons of swearing, though it is in German.) The title doesn’t really deliver. And sometimes, either does the foreshadowing.
For young adult, the writing is strikingly literary. Sometimes the style works and is beautiful. Sometimes it’s so overdone that I wonder if the writer isn’t trying too hard. Like when describing all these rainbow skies. I think the idea is cool, but sometimes the color descriptions are distractingly odd. I wish I could find the best example, but suffice it to say that the sky was brown and the simile used something that was not most-times brown. When this sort of thing happens, it makes me feel like the author is trying too hard, like I already said. That might not be the reality, but I like to feel that the author is in there so little that they have removed themselves from the book altogether. Seamless, this book is not.
However, it is a good book. I can definitely see recommending it for high schoolers. And while the lovable characters and the writing style seem to be what gets all the attention here, I am most impressed with a handful of very touching scenes—which increased near the end of the book—that were so poignant they made your heart swell and a tear come to your eye at the same time. Finally, some deftness and real depth.
I would not discourage you from reading this book. If you are a high schooler, I might even place it in your hands. While an interesting read, I would not list it among my personal favorites, largely because I do not like to know the ending before the second chapter.
“Misfortune? / Is that what glued them down like that? / Of course not. / Let’s not be stupid. / It probably had more to do with the hurled bombs, thrown down by humans hiding in the clouds” (p13).
“She could argue with the entire world in the kitchen, and almost every evening, she did” (p41).
“Of course, there was also the scratchy feeling of sin. / How could he do this? / How could he show up and ask people to risk their lives for him? How could he be so selfish?” (p169).
“Nor did he excel enough to be one of the first chose to run straight at [Death]” (p174).
“Living was living. / The price was guilt and shame” (p208).
“You might well ask what the hell he was thinking. The answer is, probably nothing at all. He’d probably say that he was exercising his God-given right to stupidity. Either that, or the very sight of Franz Deutsher gave him the urge to destroy himself” (p297).
“On the other hand, you’re human. You should understand self-obsession” (p307).
“Competence was attractive” (p356).
“The sky was white but deteriorating fast. As always, it was becoming an enormous drop sheet. Blood was bleeding through, and in patches, the clouds were dirty, like footprints in melting snow. / Footprints? you ask. / Well, I wonder whose those could be” (p470).
“…but there would be punishment and pain, and there would be happiness, too. That was writing” (p525).
I would like to see it.