It’s strange how a book about the power of words can strip me of my own. I finally finished Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, part of this month’s shameful bookfest. And it has left me, in a single word, devastated.
It took me much longer to read than anticipated. I’m an emotional person, and this particular subject matter is often too much for me to bear. I don’t think I’ll be able to talk about this very rationally, so I apologize in advance.
This book messed with me.
The author would, no doubt, be pleased to hear that. And, yes, it’s an excellent novel. Phenomenal. The voice and imagery and characters are original and exploding with life, and I think that’s the only way someone can take a familiar (or over-told) story such as this and make it fresh and exciting. There was also a curious mix of humor throughout the darkness that made it bearable, just enough, to continue until the end.
But there is a part of me, a very large part, that wishes I had left this novel alone.
For those unfamiliar with the story, The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany. It tells the story of a young girl with a talent for thievery who is sent to live with a poor foster family. And it’s narrated by Death.
An exhausted Death.
I don’t want to spoil too much about the plot, but I’ll add that it also has: A boy with lemon hair, a Jewish fist fighter, a man with an accordion, a woman with a cardboard face, and unusually colorful skies (white-horse gray, pepper-streaked red).
I mentioned I’m emotional. What I really meant, is that I'm a crier. I can't help it; I've always been this way. But for whatever reason, I can count the number of books that have made me cry on my fingers. I’m not sure where the disconnect is – how I can be so passionately involved with something and still be able to put the necessary distance between it and myself (whereas I’m unable to do that in any other realm of media) – but it’s true. Books rarely move me to tears.
I blogged about one recently that made me cry, Gayle Foreman’s If I Stay. But those tears were a mixture of relief, sadness and happiness together. It was a release of emotion. It was positive.
The tears that The Book Thief stole from me were jagged and pained. Sobbing. Frequent. The idea that men can be so easily swayed into believing something so completely immoral, that they can do such horrible things to other humans -- and to believe it’s right – is bad enough. But then to see the few people fighting the injustice, in the smallest, most humane ways possible, and to then see them punished for it? This is what I cannot handle. To see kindness literally beaten to the ground.
When I finally reached the end of the novel, I jumped in the shower. A cleansing. And under the water, I cried further, and not just about the story. It was as if the novel pulled every single unpleasant thought that was hidden and buried in my unconscious and brought them to the surface of my mind.
Terrible ideas, finally laid out in words and sentences.
So . . . yes. If you haven’t read The Book Thief, it’s astonishing and brilliant and every other grand word I can throw at it. It deserved every literary medal it won and then some. (In particular, there is a gorgeous, heartbreaking fable towards the back end of the novel that is worth the medals alone.)
But do I wish I had read it?
I don’t know. I really don’t know.