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Robbing the Reader
on July 22, 2009
For the first half of the book I really tried to like it; for the last half of the book I really tried not to hate it. In the end, I must have been partially successful, because I did read the last fifty pages enthusiastically; though, now I feel robbed.
It isn't so much that the book is bad; it's just that it isn't very good---and it isn't very good for 500 pages. For a long time I struggled to figure out why. None of the usual suspects appeared: the author's politics don't creep into the story, and it isn't preachy; the writing style is simple, direct and clever (Zusak makes copious and effective use of synesthesia, for example); and the narrator of the story, Death, is sympathetic and witty without being trivial.
Then it finally occurred to me.
This book, set in war-torn Nazi Germany, is not peopled by living, breathing, bleeding human beings; instead, Zusak moves his characters like chess pieces. Each one is studied, obedient, and ... lifeless.
First there is "Papa." "Somehow," we're told, "Hans Huberman always knew what to say, when to stay, and when to leave her [the protagonist] be" (265). That's right: totally perfect, totally predictable, and thoroughly unbelievable. Don't get me wrong, you like Papa a lot, just like you like Santa Claus, but you know he isn't real.
Then, since this is a book set during the Holocaust, there is the obligatory Jew-in-the-basement character. He's 24. He's desperate. And when he is alone, what does the young man "fantasize"? Well, the only thing a Jew in a basement could possibly be expected to fantasize about: not family, not lost love, or sex, or even the guilt of such fantasies... No, he dreams about boxing Adolph Hitler in the big ring.
Umm, really? Boxing? Hitler? In the ring? Honestly, you'd have to add warm water and use a mallet to make a character any flatter than that. Is that all we can expect from the mind of a Jewish fugitive --- boxing Hitler?
Finally, for all the to-do about books and the importance of words in the main character, Liesel's, life, we learn little about them beyond their titles. This, despite the fact that she has read them repeatedly!
Devoid of philosophical depth, psychological truth, or literary finesse, the book ultimately has very little to offer, even (I would suggest) to the young adult audience it has been marketed for.