The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When I began to read this book, I found it so gimmicky that it was hard to parse what was even going on. The narrator is Death, who sees everything in a riot of color and metaphor. I was relieved when, a little ways in, things settled into a more straightforward narrative, though I couldn't really understand why Death was the viewpoint character.
Towards the end the penny dropped for me; I'm probably slower than normal. Death knows the main character's story because 1) she wrote it down and Death picked up the book and 2) she lived in Germany during the Second World War, a prolonged, horrific event that the author believes would stand out in Death's memory. Wouldn't it be amazing to have something eternal know our stories after all of us are gone? And don't we hope that the atrocities of World War II left a scar on the collective psyche that will never completely fade? So, despite the grim subject matter, I found Death as narrator to be uplifting, the ray of hope in an otherwise dark theme.
I can only hope the Holocaust would make a mark in Death's memory, but I'm not entirely certain it would. Now, don't get me wrong. I am no denier of the Holocaust. It happened, it was horrific, and we should never, ever forget. I'm part of a generation who still got to meet survivors. Any friend's bar mitzvah was likely to have one in attendance. A Jewish fifth grade teacher had us read the Diary of Anne Frank, and I'm grateful to have had these experiences and wonder what it will be like for my children, who may never remember meeting a survivor, and will thus be a notch more removed from the event. The thing is, though, according to my anthropologist best friend, 80 million people were killed in the 20th century in ethnic cleansing events. I believe that what makes the Holocaust unique is that it was so well recorded and has been carefully and meticulously remembered by the people who survived it. Unfortunately, it was not as unique in other respects as we might wish, so I sincerely do wonder, if there was an entity like Death, would it remember the Holocaust and World War II? Would one German girl's story from that time stay with it and sear into it's memory? Or would it just be another chapter in a long book of human suffering, another event where people were slaughtered because they prayed the wrong way, had the wrong skin tone, or spoke the wrong language?
I think this book effectively touches the minds and memories of the living, though, and that is what really matters here. I don't know how much of the story is fiction and how much is memoir - a quick search of Wikipedia didn't tell me if the main character is an ancestor of the author or perhaps based on an ancestor, though given how the book ends, it seems quite possible. I highly recommend this book and say that if the beginning seems a little much, push on. It may feel like a slog to the end in some places, but the end is worth getting to.