Thursday, November 19, 2015

Classics Club 19: The Book Thief

I have seen Markus Zusak's The Book Thief described as a 'Modern Classic'.  While I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, and am counting it towards my Classics Club challenge I am still undecided as to whether it actually qualifies as a classic. Since one of the definitions of a classic is a work that stands the test of time, I guess only time will tell!

The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany and tells the story of Leisel Meminger, the daughter of Communist parents. When her father disappears her mother cannot care for her and puts her into foster care. She ends up with the Hubermanns - kind-hearted, easy-going Hans who has an inner strength not immediately obvious, and gruff, brusque Rosa who has a hidden heart of gold. 

I liked that this novel highlighted  life in Nazi Germany and the complexity of that life. Most of the novels set in this period that I have read focus on the experiences of Jews or various allies. Germans are portrayed  homogeneously as the enemy/the bad guy. Reality of course was far more complex and The Book Thief gives some insights into that. Not everybody there supported the Nazis or the policies they implemented. Hans Hubermann gives bread to a prisoner marching through town ( and is drafted into the army as a punishment) and the Hubermanns provide sanctuary to Max Vandenburg, a young Jewish man. The mayor's wife maintains a large library despite the Nazi book burnings. Leisel has Communist parents, and their plight, although at the periphery of the novel,  is a good reminder that Nazi's persecuted other groups as well as Jews.

Another aspect I liked,  and which added depth and extra layers to the plot, was the emphasis on books and literacy. Initially Leisel can't read but one of her most treasured possessions is a book  - The Gravedigger's Handbook - that she picked up after it was dropped at her brother's burial. Hans helps her learn to read using that unlikely title and she continues to "steal" books, each of which has a special significance to her story and, by extension to this period in German history. Books and literacy also provide a link between Max and Leisel.

One of the most unique aspects of The Book Thief is that is narrated by Death.  I rather liked him as a character, especially his ironic flourishes. However, at times the use of such an unusual narrator felt a little gimmicky and intrusive. I suspect my ambivalence over Death as a narrator is at the heart of my ambivalence over whether or not The Book Thief merits the moniker 'classic".

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