As promised, here’s an essay I wrote and shared at a talk recently. Voice can be tough, especially when you’re diving into a new work and trying to gain your footings. Markus Zusak nailed the voice in The Book Thief, and I enjoyed exploring how he did it…
Voice needs to come through powerfully in a piece of writing, or the writer risks the story falling apart or distancing the reader. When a writer sets out to tell a story, she needs to have control of a few important variables—point of view, heart, and perception.
When Markus Zusak began writing The Book Thief, he initially struggled with the first key variable, point of view, and he speaks about the turning point for the book in his 2014 TEDxSydney talk titled “The Failurist.” He explained his thoughts, saying, “Let’s imagine death differently. What if death isn’t macabre or sadistic, and enjoying his work, cleaning up all these souls, what if he’s actually vulnerable? What if he’s really tired and haunted by us? And he’s proving to himself that humans can actually be beautiful and selfless and worthwhile by telling his story.” Given this surprising change in perspective on the nature of death, or how death might be characterized, Zusak was able to write the story, the story flowed.
After Zusak achieved the right point of view for The Book Thief, he was able to go on and write five hundred plus pages compared to the two hundred pages that he wasn’t connecting with previously.
It can be difficult for writers to pick the right point of view for their stories, but when it’s accomplished, a unique lens is carried through and the writer’s voice begins to rise, just as we see when the narrator, Death, is introduced to us in The Book Thief. His voice begins to unfold for the reader in a few brief but important sentences: “First the colors. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try” (3). This unique lens works for the reader because the reader is wondering why Death only sees colors first, then the humans. It’s a luring mechanism to see how and why Death sees colors, then humans.
As the story goes on, it becomes apparent that it takes a lot more than just point of view to achieve a strong voice. With the lines, “I deliberately seek out the colors to keep my mind off them, but now and then, I witness the ones who are left behind, crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair, and surprise” (5), we see Death attempting to focus on only the colors because it’s too painful for him to see beyond them and see humans. On rare occasions, though, he chooses to see past the colors, and he makes this choice in the opening of The Book Thief when we’re introduced to Liesel, also known as The Book Thief. This is where the heart of the story begins.
The heart of a story usually asks, “What is the story about?” It’s the central question surrounding a writer’s story, and it’s another key variable in achieving a strong voice. Heart is, in essence, the gravity that grounds the reader into a chosen point of view for a story. In Zusak’s story, Death’s voice is one of sharp simplicity and honesty. He has no reason to be coy as he explains, “It’s the story of one of those perpetual survivors—an expert at being left behind. It’s just a small story really, about, among other things:
*Some fanatical Germans
*A Jewish fist fighter
*And quite a lot of thievery
I saw the book thief three times.” (5), these lines contribute to the reader’s growing sense of Zusak’s voice.
As we walk with Death through Leisel’s story, we start to see how Zusak begins to accomplish a predominant voice with the use of the right point of view and heart. “His candlelit hair ignited the bed, and I picked both him and Bettina up with their souls still in the blanket. If nothing else, they died fast and they were warm. The boy from the plane, I thought. The one with the teddy bear. Where was Rudy’s comfort? Where was someone to alleviate this robbery of his life? Who was there to soothe him as life’s rug was snatched from under his sleeping feet? No one. There was only me. And I’m not too great at that sort of comforting thing, especially when my hands are cold and the bed is warm. I carried him softly through the broken street, with one salty eye and a heavy, deathly heart” (531). Through Zusak’s imagery, word choices, and what Death chooses to acknowledge, we’re able to feel something real and palpable on the page. Our hearts are lunged into this world because Zusak’s voice is a sincere and authentic one.
Zusak challenges a common human theme: death. He even gives death a name—Death, and shrouds him in humanlike qualities, and by doing this he spins his own ideals of the world into his work. He not only accomplishes this other variable of voice called perception through the use of Death, but he brings a new way of looking at things in nearly every aspect of his writing.
When it comes to perception, someone may see the color blue and black on a dress while another may see gold and white, but the new perception Zusak brings to his writing is something else entirely, which is the make-up of his voice.
There are several perceptions we see through Zusak’s work, and one of which is his ability to convey the rawness of human emotion, whether it be through death, love, or happiness. We see it in lines such as: “She did not say goodbye. She was incapable, and after a few more minutes at his side, she was able to tear herself from the ground. It amazes me what humans can do, even when streams are flowing down their faces and they stagger on, coughing and searching, and finding” (536). The fact that Death would not only be noticing the greatest of human tragedies, but paying attention to the living as well as they stagger on, is an incredible perception.
Another perception Zusak carries through his work is his use of language. His use of simile contributes to the strength of his voice in passages like, “He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world. She was the book thief without words. Trust me though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain” (80). In this passage, we’re shown so little, but given so much. In just a few lines, Zusak accomplishes the entire make-up of who Rudy and Leisel are, and his use of similes are able to function on a powerful level of voice.
Perception is an important tool in any writer’s toolbox because it’s their distinctive view on the world. What they see and how they see it will help shape their voice.
Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is an exemplary piece of fiction with a very distinctive and original voice, and it’s a shining example of how a writer can turn up the volume within his pages.
Markus Zusak. The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf; Reprint edition (September 11, 2007)
TEDx. “The failurist: Markus Zusak at TEDxSydney 2014.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube 14 June 2014. Web. 9 April 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-_8QIdm4hA