The author Markus Zusak promptly picked apart my little formula for a World War II novel and refused to let me rest on solid ground for the entirety of the book.
The novel is about a young girl, Liesel Meminger, in Nazi-Germany who is sent to live with foster parents. The story follows her for several years and through trials that involve having nightmares, hiding a Jew, and stealing books. Along the way, the reader meets characters and can’t help but become emotionally attached.
In a way, this novel is a study of people. In a time when everything is uncertain and truth is buried in a pile of burning books, the nature of humans is pronounced, and, as the reader, we get to see the honest response in everyone we meet.
It is the tale’s narrator, however, that shakes up any preconceptions of novels in general. When the story opens, the reader is greeted by Death. Death, being an important player, so to speak, in WWII, comes in contact with characters several times, and it is young Liesel who catches his attention, and he is compelled to tell the audience about her.
Death is a prominent voice and doesn’t bother removing himself from the story. The voice shifts from a tired solemnity to ironic humor, never letting the reader fall too much into the story. Another quirk about Death: he doesn’t mind letting you know who isn’t going to make it to the end of the story. Thus enters a new kind of suspense; on page 21, he may tell you who will die, but the event won’t happen until many chapters later when false hope has begun creeping in and then is unforgivably ripped away. It’s quite frustrating. In hindsight, it’s brilliant.
Why you should pick up this book: as Liesel learns the power of words, so do you. The language in the novel is simple and poetic and allows the reader to visualize a scene or a feeling with ease. You can hear the accordion music, feel the adrenaline of being in a boxing match with Hitler, and be calmed by a stolen story while bombs fall a mile from your house.
If done well, this book could translate beautifully into a movie.
But since that kind of translation is a near impossibility, I would appreciate if any enthusiastic screenwriter would keep his/her fingers to him/herself.