ZUSAK, MARKUS. The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. ISBN: 978-0-375-84220-7. Pp. 552. $12.99.
I think I owe an explanation for why I'm predisposed to dislike Markus Zusak's widely acclaimed young adult novel The Book Thief. As I mentioned to my mother on the phone last week, I don't see the point of writing a book for the "14 and older" set, namely because once a child is old enough to read The Book Thief, he should, I presume, be old enough to read "real" literature. My mother wisely reminded me that I may not be a fair judge, given that I went to a school where the reading list went something like this. Fourth grade: Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting. Fifth grade: Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Sixth grade: Brave New World. The latter I remember very clearly because of one particular scene in which a man playfully fondles a woman's breasts during a helicopter ride and I found this terribly presumptuous on his part. I also didn't know how sex worked and what, exactly, it entailed, even though the book is brimful of it. I should mention that when my sixth grade English teacher walked into the bookstore where I was working, ten years later, I wasn't sure if I should kick him in the groin or seduce him. (Answer: neither. I sold him a book.)
What I'm trying to say is, my educational background is completely lacking in YA experience and The Book Thief, like all YA I assume, just seems like a stunted adult novel. It's too sophisticated for the pre-teen set, but too naive for a high-schooler. Fortunately, there is an underground movement that is threatening daily to rise to the surface and become the "norm". The members of this movement are adults (real ones, with credit cards and spouses and mortgages, adults who aren't children's librarians) who swear by the literary value of YA. In fact, Gretchen Rubin is one such adult, but never mind that. These, I believe, are the dedicated readers of The Book Thief. Real fourteen-year-olds, I hope, are too busy discovering Ernest Hemingway and Robert Graves to bother with this kids' stuff. Call me a snob and an elitist. It's true. But I'd rather blame it on St. Anne's and Mr. D.
Nevertheless, (yes, nevertheless!) The Book Thief does have literary value. It is a (mostly) beautifully-written piece of poetic prose, which only occasionally smacks too much of writerly effort. For example, "They cupped their genitals in their hands and shivered like the future." What does that mean? And am I supposed to ignore it out of embarrassment over the mention of genitalia earlier on in the sentence? Or should I ignore it because the narrator is Death and therefore infallible? I make these complaints despite the fact that Death, the narrator, really is the best part of the novel. His is the most singular voice and the most intriguing character. If anything, Zusak is so swept up in perfecting his narration of the story (if there were a story, but alas, there isn't) that he all but forgets to pump any life into the figures that populate the novel. The protagonist, Liesel Meminger, doesn't hold a candle to her earlier counterpart, Roald Dahl's Mathilda, and a week from now, when I hear the name "Liesel," I'll still just think of the hot one from "The Sound of Music".