Markus Zusak writes compelling books, including The Book Thief. He does so despite writing in plain, unadorned English. His dialog is conversational. Yet you know Rudy and what he’s thinking, you can smell the smoke and see the cigarette hanging out of the corner of Han Huberrmann’s mouth as a plays the accordion and you can see Liesel’s utter focus and slight smile as she read’s Max’s story The Word Shaker. Not only do you intimately know the characters once you’re through with one of his books, you want to know them. Even the ones that can be irritating. We care about them.
Mr. Zusak also has a clearly distinct “voice” in his writing; he often uses lists with seemingly unrelated items to foreshadow events:
a girl made of darkness—the joy of cigarettes —a town walker—some dead letters—hitler’s birthday— 100 percent pure german sweat—the gates of thievery— and a book of fire
He also juxtaposes seemingly unrelated ideas within his writing: e.g., “He left Himmel Street wearing his hangover and a suit.” Another: “Oh, how the clouds stumbled in and assembled stupidly in the sky. Great obese clouds. Dark and plump. Bumping into each other. Apologizing. Moving on and finding room.” Finally: “Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain.” However this is not mere technique, it is his unique way of shaping our mind’s eye to both the inner and outer turmoil in the story.
Set during WW II, The Book Thief is obsessively about a girl who is traveling with her brother to a family who will take her in because her mother must give them up. Her brother dies during the journey and the family will provide safe harbor for a Jewish man. It is actually about relationships between the girl and her family, her neighbors and towns people and death (personified as the narrator of the story). While the story of what happens in this suburb of Munich is really good, the interplay of people in dire straits is excellent. It is memorable and moving.
I both read Kindle and listened to the Audible version of the book (thank you Whispersych for Voice). Allan Corduner seemed to be the perfect voice to narrate the story. His pacing and phrasing were spot on. Excellent narration; I highly recommend the audio version as well.
I come away from Mr. Zusak’s books somewhat surprised I like them so much and that the characters and milieu stick with me so much. Yet his voice, his story and his relationships are compelling. He moves you to think how you would handle the protagonist’s challenges and he moves the characters into your heart and soul. When you attempt to analyze why this is so, it’s a bit hard. For example, The Book Thief provides an everyday life sketch of a street and town in not-so-everyday circumstances. Maybe that’s the trick, his stories deal with large themes on an intimate scale (also see I Am the Messenger). I can only hope this is retained in the movie; the trailer and cast provide hope (schedules are tough; still haven’t seen it yet).
I leave you with a warning – you will not leave The Book Thief unscathed. Characters will burrow in, scenes will be deeply stored and you will live with them.