My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Before anything else, I will say that the writing is beautiful and I totally understand the appeal of this book. Zusak takes full advantage of the Death-as-narrator to throw in incongruous metaphors (as descriptions of scenes, colors, etc) that work because a) they’re consistently applied and b) because of the starting bias that, as someone—something—who isn’t human, the narrator is unreliable by default.
Anyway, that’s it for the voice. By and large Zusak knows what he’s doing, stylistically, and Death comes across as a simultaneous cynic and someone who is deeply affected by what he sees. At times this clashes, but if you’re inclined to see Death-as-compassionate favorably, you can argue that the cynicism is all surface-level stuff.
Personally, I’m not into ‘Gentleman Death’ at all (I don’t even like the Dickinson poem), so the way the book opens was a huge turnoff. It picks up soon enough, and once he’s solidly in the narrative it’s fine, but at the opening I was like ‘ugh, I’m going to read this book but I won’t enjoy it.’ I’m glad I was wrong there.
The one stylistic decision I did not like—and this is to some extent a pet peeve—is that he frequently has characters say something in German and then reiterate it in English. It’s one thing when the narrator is translating, and another when it’s like: “Dumköpf. Dummy!”
They do this in Bollywood movies , and it looks silly. I would much rather have the untranslated German or—why pretend at all—just keep it in English. There are a few words where the German is richer in meaning, but those could all be kept in the translation style. (“Dumköpf!” Dummy. —if the description above was unclear.)
The story is split into sections, which are further subdivided, named around some key book, occasionally as iconic as ‘Mein Kampf’ but frequently unknown (to me, anyway) beyond the excerpts Zusak includes in the text. Considering the small span of time the events in this story cover—there are gaps, but the key stuff reads as one continuous narrative—I’m not sure how much the sections really add, but they don’t hinder the reading. And nor does breaking the narrative with little notes of things that are good to know but that don’t quite fit into how the story is being told.
An interesting point here: Death is essentially translating and commentating the main character’s own narrative, so the asides—which are right in the middle of the page, but in bold—are generally information she wouldn’t have known herself. Sometimes they are entries that illuminate the mood in a more abbreviated way than exposition would have done, which is a cool technique and effectively used, I think, but I can’t see it working for anything other than a stand-alone novel.
Now, the actual premise. It’s nice that Zusak is focusing on German kids in the midst of World War II who aren’t just little pro-Hitler robots or, alternatively, running an entire Resistance camp (okay, I guess that was kind of a French thing…Jewish Underground, then?) from their homes. Of course, it is kind of tempting to be like ‘so why exactly does Death care so much about her…’ then, but down that road lies madness, so yeah.
As I already mentioned, I don’t enjoy compassionate Death, and this one has a side of angst—he wavers between hating his job and being like ‘well no one else can do this.’ The balance between ‘this is my job’ and ‘omg humans’ is at times fragile in this book, and while it’s not too obvious within one section, it is notable when considering the work as a whole. There are reasons, sure, but I think Zusak got a bit into trying to have it both ways—the beautiful, intimate, obsessive descriptions of certain moments—and then the borderline aloofness that allows for these clear mental pictures that are incongruous with the seriousness of the situation and the narrator’s previous reaction to these things.
As far as picking this particular location and time period goes, Zusak mentions that he learned about Molching (the setting) from his parents, which adds a bit more of a personal feel to the narrative (and since he’s gone with an intimately affected Death it works…when Death is being intimately affected). Also, Nazi Germany has perhaps the more iconic color combination ever, and the opening, as much as I have misgivings regarding its style, pulls a neat trick with bringing them together to evoke the all-too-familiar sigil.
A quick note before I forget: read a physical copy of this book, as there are a few sections that are drawings, and while they’re not the outstanding parts of the book, I think if you get that far you won’t want to miss them, either.
Anyway, the words in this book are gorgeous. Zusak doesn’t hit the froof-levels of the Romantics but he uses imagery and those unexpected metaphors to create a very visual novel. I do not think that the story itself is what’s outstanding about this work. I leave judgments on whether or not the events on Himmel Street at the end were over-the-top up to you (I can see why he went that route, although it felt too clean), but I would read this book for the gorgeous style alone.