Tuesday, 8 October 2013

An innovative if monotonous The Book Thief

From The Week of October 1st, 2013

However much it entertains us in theatres and agonizes us in our personal lives, tragedy, more than anything else, is the revealer of true character. For it is only when pushed to the extremity of ugly circumstance and torturous emotion that we come to understand who we are. Do we buckle in the face of cruelty from both the world and our fellow humans? Do we resign ourselves to fates imposed upon us by powers far more immense than ourselves? Or do we remind ourselves that setbacks, in whatever form, are merely opportunities to learn, to grow and to be better next time? All humans, at one point or another, have been compelled to respond to tragedy by taking one of its many roads, but how many of them have comprehended just how consequential that decision was, just how much it shapes their lives and their souls? Marcus Zusak ruminates in his interesting, if problematic, work.

Growing up in the harsh, racist nationalism of Nazi Germany, Liesel is an angry girl with nothing to call her own. Her parents, communists who fear the worst from Hitler, have sent her to a foster home in Munich where she's softened by the kindness of her foster father, Hans, and stiffened by the sternness of her foster mother, Rosa. Teased for being slow to learn how to read, she proves to be fearsome with her fists, pummeling anyone who deigns to scorn her. For she is a girl determined to overcome her own shortcomings and prove everyone wrong.

With Hans' help, Liesel slowly learns her letters, knowledge that kindles a lifelong thirst for books and the wisdom contained within. Her family's relative poverty, however, leaves little expendable coin for the buying of such luxuries, so Liesel turns to stealing them from book burnings and private libraries, insatiably accumulating a collection of works that fill her with words and dreams. But no collection of books can shield her from the outside world which is convulsed by World War II and all of its civilian atrocities. Liesel may have conquered the word, but she cannot conquer the world that made them, and so she must hold on in hopes that those she's come to hold dear make it through to the new dawn.

The claimant of numerous honors and awards, The Book Thief is inventive fiction. Told from the perspective of Death, a seemingly omnipotent force tasked with the claiming of the souls of the recently deceased, it narratively dips in and out of the lives of its main actors, sometimes granting them the privacy of their own thoughts while at other times exposing, in depth, the secrets of their most closely guarded memories. In this, Mr. Zusak is able to paint a wide canvas, filling in his characters at the pace and the style of his choosing. This proves to be a fairly successful technique that affords the reader a blend of both the intimate and the removed, the soulful and the dispassionate, as we revisit the harshness of Nazi Germany and life beneath its yoke.

Despite the grimness of its setting, The Book Thief is populated by warm characters who, though they possess different motivations and occupations, share in a common desire to endure, as best they can, this life as they know it. Kindness, faithfulness and generosity from the commonfolk stand in stark contrast to the uncaring mercilessness of the Nazi machine which does its best to feed them into its voracious maw. Most everyone in Liesel's orbit exhibits a desire to protect what they have and to forge ahead despite the nightmare in which they've found themselves. Liesel, meanwhile, takes that stoicness a step further, repeatedly placing herself in danger to aid those that society has deemed unworthy. For her, kindness does not stem from pamphlets or marches. It flows from deeds, a truth she does not forget despite her own thievery.

Despite its engaging themes which ask us to contemplate both the ascendent good and the inescapable bad of humanity, The Book Thief is ultimately a disappointment that failed to hold my interest. Liesel's combativeness is, at times, engrossing, as is the sweetness of her foster father who will stop at nothing to make her dreams come true. But these virtues cannot make up for the slow, grinding relentlessness of the plot which fails to come to anything like a culmination. Our protagonists are merely presented with incident after incident, moment after moment, challenge after challenge, and asked to react to them. And so, when the novelty of Death-as-character wears off after the first few chapters, we're left with a monotonous journey that leads nowhere. This is a work animated by a wonderful idea that, for all its potence, lacks the power to carry 500 pages on its own.

At times fascinating and touching, but too much of a slog to be laudatory... (3/5 Stars)

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