Markus Zusak originally wrote this book to be much shorter, only a hundred pages or so, but the extra length doesn't bloat the tale at all. In fact this is one of the most succinct tales about humanity I have ever read, embodying all that’s best and worst about people in one childhood. It has a clear start, the death of her brother, and a clear ending that I won’t spoil for you.
First of all let’s get a few things straight.
Firstly: It’s set in Nazi Germany and features, amongst other things; the Gestapo, Hitler Youth, Jews, bombing raids, concentration camps and racial purity.
Yet it’s not like any other war novel I’ve read. These things aren’t shown in any more detail than they have to be to, however the condemnation and anger towards the damage men do to other men is palpable.
The cast is almost exclusively German, and there’s a fair range of likable and despicable characters. The books villains (if there are any villains… more, unpleasant people) aren’t unpleasant simply because they’re in the Nazi Party, that’s just there as an excuse to let their own excesses out. Even the smallest characters are well drawn out and when the bombs finally start falling the distinction between friend and foe falls apart completely.
The book gives all shades of humans in the Nazi regime and the narrator is unapologetic in his severe, almost brutal, analysis of the human psyche. It is interesting to note though the different directions that blame flies.
Only Max Vandenburg, the stories only prominent Jew, directly blames Hitler. Men like Hans Hubermann blame themselves for being weak and not standing up to things that are wrong. The narrator, on the other hand, blames almost everyone equally for their own individual failings and at the same time no one at all.
It’s up to the reader to decide who is to blame. What isn’t up to the reader to decide is if these things are wrong as unforgivable atrocities, real actual abominations, are committed.
Secondly: the book is narrated by death.
It isn’t quite Terry Pratchet, it’s much more deadpan and the philosophy is just a bit more pointed. Yet again Death is one of the richest characters in the books. He’s been everywhere, he’s seen everything. No one can escape him. So when he decides to tell you this story, simply because it’s worth telling, he isn’t wrong.
The narrator is perhaps the books greatest strength; the unique way the story is structured separates it from other stories of its type. The prose is eloquent and consistently interesting, a small masterpiece in understatement.
Thirdly: There is artwork.
Although it has been marketed as a children’s book in some places of the world the artwork is definitely not what makes it so. It’s used sparingly but very importantly, giving some insight into one of the books key characters. Without the artwork Max Vandenburg would be a much darker character than he really is.
Each picture really is worth a thousand words in looking into the soul of one of the book’s turning characters.
The tragedy, at the end though, is that the story had to be told in the first place. Because make no mistake Liesel Meminger’s story is a tragedy, but it’s a tragedy filtered through all the best things that make us human. It’s still worth telling.
The harsh realities that Death feeds us is there constantly to remind us that the world isn’t perfect but it’s still a wonderful place.
Markus Zusak succeeds, in just a short few hundred pages, of giving us the very best and the very worst that humanity has to offer. Death’s closing statements could be the most prophetic words ever said.