There's a good chance you've read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. And if so, there's a good chance you have some strong opinions on it. If I had to lead a book club discussion on this novel, I'd ask two questions. First, is this book on your "best books ever" list, as it is for so many people? And second, should it be classified as young adult fiction?
In The Book Thief, Zusak approaches the Holocaust era from a unique angle, focusing on a civilian population in Nazi Germany. The novel's heroine is a young girl named Liesel Meminger, who is adopted and raised by a poor foster family in a fictional town outside of Munich. With the encouragement of her foster father Hans Hubermann, Liesel discovers a passion for reading and with that, a knack for stealing books from Nazi book burnings and the mayor's library. Liesel soon participates in a much bigger act of resistance when the Hubermanns agree to shelter Max Vanderburg, a young Jewish man, in their basement.
The episodic narrative contains many scenes that are beautifully imagined and told. From the beginning, Zusak fleshes out an entire village of interesting characters that drew me into the story. Also, it's hard for a book-lover not to appreciate the novel's emphasis on the power of words and stories in times of hardship. In one memorable scene, Max uses white paint to erase the pages of Mein Kampf, creating a blank book to write his own stories from his basement sanctuary. Fighting back against words of hate, Max constructs a narrative that reframes his story of persecution as one of love and friendship.
The major element of The Book Thief that didn't work for me was its narrative style. The novel's narrator is Death, who is personified not as a scythe-wielding Grim Reaper but as a deadpan yet sympathetic observer who carries away the souls of the deceased. Death's commentary felt like a constant intrusion upon an otherwise good story. Death frequently interrupts the narrative with newsflash-style interjections (see above). I assume these were intended for dramatic effect, or sometimes comic relief, but I didn't find they contributed anything to the story. Death's use of foreshadowing was also heavy-handed; he's constantly hinting about what's going to happen and who's going to die. Even when he's just telling the story without gimmicky devices, his descriptions were sometimes contrived or awkward. For example: "Pinecones were scattered like cookies"... why cookies?
In the US, The Book Thief is marketed as a young adult book, though I've heard that Zusak didn't write it with this genre label in mind. Most of the awards it has received are specific to the genres of young adult and children's literature. It's hard to say this without implying that young adult fiction is less well-written than adult fiction (which I don't necessarily think is true), but to me, the narrative style seems more suited to a younger audience. Although I wouldn't include The Book Thief on my "best books ever" list, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to younger readers who are just beginning to grapple with the extreme cruelty and courage that took place during this period in history.
If you've read The Book Thief, what did you think about it? Would you consider it a young adult book?