Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Learning to read


                There are many books about World War II and the Holocaust and of course, they can't all be good ("Jeder stirbt für sich allein" by Hans Fallada, translated as "Every Man Dies Alone" or "Alone in Berlin", comes to mind as an example of a great one). But when I came across one with the story of a little girl learning to read and developing a special relationship with the books in the middle of Germany during WW2 and when I found out Death appears in it not only as the end of life but also as a character, I was intrigued and eager to read it. Some 500 pages later it turns out it's not as good as it sounds.

                "The Book Thief" is the latest book by Australian author Markus Zusak. It tells the story of a young girl called Liesel Meminger. After the loss of her father and brother, mother gave her to Hubermanns, a family living in a little town near Munich called Molching. There she gradually grows up amidst  WW2, making friends, learning to love her new parents, getting in and out of trouble, hiding a Jew in the basement, learning to read, and of course, stealing books in the process.

                The story and its morals are nothing new. Author shows us the horror and meaninglessness of war and hatred, as well as the goodness that still exists in some people and the sacrifices they are willing to make, but we already know that. It has been told through countless stories so far, so if you want to tell it again you must think of a new way, a different approach. The author does that by introducing the character of Death and making him a narrator. Unfortunately, that creates more harm than good. His narration is based on a little book written by Liesel so he first tells us how he came to know the girl and get the book. Which is practically the whole story in short. And later throughout the book he constantly jumps ahead and tells us what's going to happen. In addition to that each chapter starts with the list of people, things or events that will occur in it. I found it useless and even distracting.

                Revealing things in advance is not necessary a bad thing. It suffices to recall the books we've read and would gladly read them again even though we know all that happen and how they end, to see there's more to a good book than just revealing a story. But that's what is missing here. Aside from the nice story diminished by the aforementioned things, there's nothing else to it. The way it's written doesn't bring any extra flavour but rather makes it tasteless, and Liesel's relationship with books, which should be the center of the story, remains underdeveloped. Nevertheless, the book is an easy read, with some interesting details and good morals. But is that really enough? Maybe for someone who's learning to read.

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