I’d like to open this post by retracting some things I said in my last review:
I think I was way off base in claiming it was really romantic attraction. At the age of 10, it was probably merely a childhood curiosity, and I feel I demonstrated a poor understanding of child psychology there. But then that isn’t my forte, is it?

Also for some reason I thought Liesel was a Jew. I am such an idiot. Seriously I was considering going back and removing that.

So we will now enter Chapter 5 of Part One:

THE JESSE OWENS INCIDENT

I didn’t mention it in the last post, but this “incident” was actually mentioned in the previous chapter in the “SOME FACTS ABOUT RUDY STEINER” segment:

On Himmel Street, he was considered a little crazy.

This was on account of an event that was rarely spoken about but widely

regarded as “The Jesse Owens Incident,” in which he painted himself

charcoal black and ran the 100 meters at the local playing field one

night.

 

And considering we were also told he was obsessed with Jesse Owens, we already have a pretty good idea of what happened and why.

So obviously we must ask ourselves what purpose Zusak intends in returning to the incident and giving it a full chapter in his book.

The chapter begins promisingly enough:

As we both know, Liesel wasn’t on hand on Himmel Street when Rudy performed his act of childhood infamy. When she looked back, though, it felt like she’d actually been there. In her memory, she had somehow become a member of Rudy’s imaginary audience. Nobody else mentioned it, but Rudy certainly made up for that, so much that when Liesel came to recollect her story, the Jesse Owens incident was as much a part of it as everything she witnessed firsthand.

This is something I can relate to very strongly myself, because I remember the night my brother’s car was broken into and robbed by a drunken man in his late twenties as well as if I were there, even though I only heard my mother tell the story the next day (or the same day, considering it happened early in the morning). But she told it so well it felt like I was there. In fact, I think she was a better storyteller than Zusak. And I’d like to tell you the whole story myself because it’s actually very funny and very interesting, perhaps more so than this chapter. But no, I’m off track already.

So…. Zusak starts it off by giving us some historical perspective:

It was 1936. The Olympics. Hitler’s games.

Jesse Owens had just completed the 4 x 100m relay and won his fourth gold medal. Talk that he was subhuman because he was black and Hitler’s refusal to shake his hand were touted around the world. Even the most racist Germans were amazed with the efforts of Owens, and word of his feat slipped through the cracks.

This helps to explain why Jesse Owens was important and who he was. (Personally, when I hear his name I automatically think of the scene in Blazing Saddles where Cleavon Little says “And now for my next impression…. Jesse Owens” and runs like hell. Sorry, I just had to say that.)

But there isn’t all too much surprising or new about the story until Rudy finishes his race and is “on his victory lap,” as he would have it.

The narrative becomes lost in Rudy’s childhood imagination up to this point, and once his father finds him, it’s easy to see why.

We get a vivid picture of Alex Steiner, Rudy’s father, that shows us that Zusak has a good understanding of the kind of individual that lived in Germany. Sure, these people did support Hitler, but it was more complicated than that and they weren’t just cookie-cutter bad guys.

Remember what I was saying about how times seem so simple when you’re a child but they really aren’t? Well, Zusak really hammers that theme into our heads here.

Rudy obviously is not racist or anti-Semitic. In fact, he can’t understand such a thing. Can’t even begin to fathom what being Jewish means, in fact.

If the book has been lost in childhood whimsy and trivialities, Zusak makes sure we know why as he ends this chapter on a particular dire note:

They walked on in silence for a while, until Rudy said, “I just wish I was like Jesse Owens, papa.”

This time, Mr. Steiner placed his hand on Rudy’s head and explained, “I know, son-but you’ve got beautiful blond hair and big, safe blue eyes. You should be happy with that; is that clear?”

But nothing was clear.

Rudy understood nothing, and that night was the prelude of things to come. Two and a half years later, the Kaufmann Shoe Shop was reduced to broken glass, and all the shoes were flung aboard a truck in their boxes.

Note that “two and a half years later” is at this point very soon to come, if it hasn’t actually happened already. Zusak is sending us a very strong message here: “Enjoy the moments of happiness I give you. It’s all about to go to hell, and you know that and I’m not letting you deny it.”

THE OTHER SIDE OF SANDPAPER

Compounding his cruelty he then proceeds to give us the date: “late May 1939.” Only 3 months left left until the war. Things are normal at the Hubermann household now, but already dire politics are coming into play:

Earlier, there had been a parade.

The brown-shirted extremist members of the NSDAP (otherwise known as the Nazi Party) had marched down Munich Street, their banners worn proudly, their faces held high, as if on sticks. Their voices were full of song, culminating in a roaring rendition of “Deutschland über Alles.” “Germany over Everything.”

As always, they were clapped.

They were spurred on as they walked to who knows where.

People on the street stood and watched, some with straight-armed salutes, others with hands that burned from applause.

We do have one thing to make us feel better, though:

*** SOME CRUNCHED NUMBERS ***

In 1933, 90 percent of Germans showed unflinching

support for Adolf Hitler.

That leaves 10 percent who didn’t.

Hans Hubermann belonged to the 10 percent.

There was a reason for that.

It’s because he is a flawless, wonderful paragon of humanity. Sorry, but I just love him more and more on every page. Seriously, that is not an exaggeration!

And he gets the chance to prove this as Liesel’s nightmares sadly get worse:

When she woke up screaming, Liesel knew immediately that on this occasion, something had changed. A smell leaked out from under the sheets, warm and sickly. At first, she tried convincing herself that nothing had happened, but as Papa came closer and held her, she cried and admitted the fact in his ear.

Liesel’s experience really was a traumatic thing for a 10-year-old girl to go through, so I’m glad the effects are shown to be so severe. Also, bed-wetting is often shown as something funny to laugh at people for in pop culture, so it’s nice to see it portrayed in a sympathetic light.

He teases, however, that something bigger is to come from this:

A black book with silver writing on it came hurtling out and landed on the floor, between the tall man’s feet.

He looked down at it.

He looked at the girl, who timidly shrugged.

Then expertly defuses the tension:

*** A 2 A.M. CONVERSATION ***

“Is this yours?”

“Yes, Papa.”

“Do you want to read it?”

Again, “Yes, Papa.”

A tired smile.

Metallic eyes, melting.

“Well, we’d better read it, then.”

So he changes it from the threat of something bad happening, to something nice as Hans uses the book to teach her to read.

We also have some foreshadowing:

You wouldn’t think it, she wrote, but it was not so much the school who helped me to read. It was Papa. People think he’s not so smart, and it’s true that he doesn’t read too fast, but I would soon learn that words and writing actually saved his life once. Or at least, words and a man who taught him the accordion…

I wonder if Zusak finished the book, then went back and arbitrarily sprinkled hints of what was to come, just to mess with us.

I hope this isn’t foreshadowing, though, at least:

He ran a hand through his sleepy hair and said, “Well, promise me one thing, Liesel. If I die anytime soon, you make sure they bury me right.”

She nodded, with great sincerity.

“No skipping chapter six or step four in chapter nine.” He laughed, as did the bed wetter.

I’m actually the sort of individual strange and morbid enough who tends to like the idea of killing off characters in order to create drama, be more realistic, break rules, and see what the world would be like without them (and also because there’s a Tarantino side to my brain which I try my best to tame). I tend to find people who hate authors for killing their favorite characters stupid and immature. But in this case…….

PLEASE DON’T KILL HANS HUBERMANN, MARKUS. PLEASE DON’T KILL HIM. I WILL DO ANYTHING, ANYTHING. I WILL OFFER YOU MY FIRST-BORN SON, RUMPELSTILTSKIN. I WILL BE YOUR LIFELONG SLAVE. JUST DON’T – KILL – HANS – HUBERMANN.

And in fact, it’s surprising for a book narrated by Death, that the rest of this chapter is so light, funny, warm, and altogether human. Zusak and Death may have their similarities, but Zusak is pretty good at distancing himself ultimately. The fact that the rest of the chapter revolves around Liesel being taught the alphabet is clearly necessary to explain her stealing books and telling her story.

Also, I watched the Masterpiece Theater film “Goodnight Mr. Tom” last night and it’s amazing how many similarities there are between that and this book.

Both are set on the onset of World War II, feature a child having to go live with a stranger, and their foster father finding that they have wet the bed, which they handle in a fairly business-like fashion without embarrassing the child. The child also later in the story loses his sibling and has nightmares.
In particular, passages like this (As they progressed through the alphabet, Liesel’s eyes grew larger. She had done this at school, in the kindergarten class, but this time was better. She was the only one there, and she was not gigantic.)

make me convinced Zusak watched that movie or read the book because there is a scene ridiculously similar to this where Tom is teaching the child the alphabet in the same way Hans is here after the child is, in his own words, “put in with the babies” due to his inability to read.

I realize I have no way of proving Zusak ever saw Goodnight, Mister Tom and it doesn’t really matter in any case. But I just had to say that because there were too many similarities.

I was more surprised that for his “*** A TYPICAL HANS HUBERMANN ARTWORK ***,” he includes an actual drawing that someone would sketch,

rather than his “photos” before. Probably because it’s a crude stick painting, so it wouldn’t be that difficult to visualize it. He does seem to like to challenge himself with his descriptions.

The chapter does close with some beautiful writing:

In the darkness, Liesel kept her eyes open. She was watching the words.

THE SMELL OF FRIENDSHIP

This was a hard chapter to write about. I love it. In fact, when I visited my aunt I read it to her apart from any of the chapters (giving a brief synopsis of what had happened) when I visited her and she said it was very good writing and hoped she could borrow the book from me when I had finished.

And yet there’s not much to say about it.

Liesel keeps having nightmares and Hans keeps being awesome.

Honestly, Zusak is really endearing us to these characters. I feel like they’re people I know and we’re so early in. There’s a fun little battle of wills between Hans and Rosa as she wants Liesel to deliver the ironing with her, so Hans and Liesel deliver it and do their lessons at the same time.1

Then we get some more foreshadowing of Hans’ story:

*** PAPA’S FACE ***

It traveled and wondered,

but it disclosed no answers.

Not yet. 2

There had been a change in him. A slight shift.

She saw it but didn’t realize until later, when all the stories came together. She didn’t see him watching as he played, having no idea that Hans Hubermann’s accordion was a story. In the times ahead, that story would arrive at 33 Himmel Street in the early hours of morning, wearing ruffled shoulders and a shivering jacket. It would carry a suitcase, a book, and two questions. A story. Story after story. Story within story. 3

Zusak is great at making you read on. Honestly, I feel like I’m reading something written by a virtuoso in the art of writing.

In particular, I have to include this, because it’s hilarious:

When the weather was good, they’d go to the Amper in the afternoon. In bad weather, it was the basement. This was mainly on account of Mama. At first, they tried in the kitchen, but there was no way.

“Rosa,” Hans said to her at one point. Quietly, his words cut through one of her sentences. “Could you do me a favor?”

She looked up from the stove. “What?”

“I’m asking you, I’m begging you, could you please shut your mouth for just five minutes?”

You can imagine the reaction.

They ended up in the basement. 4

Liesel is making great progress in her reading lessons and the chapter ends with her thinking about how much she loves Hans in a passage I read in bed right before I fell asleep after a warm candle-lit bath, which is exactly the way it should be read:

“You stink,” Mama would say to Hans. “Like cigarettes and kerosene.”

Sitting in the water, she imagined the smell of it, mapped out on her papa’s clothes. More than anything, it was the smell of friendship, and she could find it on herself, too. Liesel loved that smell. She would sniff her arm and smile as the water cooled around her.

We need to form a Hans Hubermann Appreciation Society. Seriously, this man is THE BEST.

Aaaand that’s it! You see? There’s not much I can say about it. Nothing much happens. It basically serves the purpose of endearing us to the characters and making us care about them more. But like I said before I wish more books would have nice conflict-limited moments like this and that’s the problem: I find myself repeating what I’ve said before the way I did in my Casual Vacancy reviews. Like when I said the book is surprisingly warm. In fact, my aunt was shocked when I told her it was narrated by Death the next day!

Zusak is a master at audience manipulation, I suppose.

THE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE SCHOOL YARD

Further evidence of this can be seen in the opening of this passage. He allowed us to know it was a few weeks into June 1939 and he had let us savor every bit of peace and pre-war bliss we can have. So with the first sentence of the following chapter he teases us:

The summer of ’39 was in a hurry, or perhaps Liesel was.

And he then proceeds to summarize that yes, Liesel’s life went on as normal and things were going well for her and says “It felt like it was over a few days after it began“. It’s as if he’s saying “Sorry for boring you with all that in the first place,” because he knows readers have been trained to love conflict and misery. The moments when characters are having fun and being happy are the dull parts, the boring parts where we must wait for things to get interesting. So he will oblige, Mr. Zusak, as he pretends not to notice we are begging him to do anything else.

So he cheerfully hurls this at us:

In the latter part of the year, two things happened.

*** SEPTEMBER-NOVEMBER 1939 ***

1. World War Two begins.

2. Liesel Meminger becomes the heavyweight

champion of the school yard.

As we stare, our mouths aghast in horror, without a clue how to react to this (With joy that the conflict is beginning? How can we? And how can we not?), he goes on, letting Death revel in the little details, reminding us humans did plenty of that ourselves, then he concludes with:

To steal a phrase from Hans Hubermann:

The fun begins.

And I’m sitting here leaning back in my chair my mouth gaping in horror, emotionally drained in less than a page and a half.

And there are FOUR HUNDRED AND FIFTY SIX PAGES left, and I’m not sure I want to read them!*

As I read on, Zusak builds up the tension to an agonizing extreme and turns us into sadists:

By the time he made it home and removed it, his sweat had drawn the ink onto his skin. The paper landed on the table, but the news was stapled to his chest. A tattoo. Holding the shirt open, he looked down in the unsure kitchen light.

“What does it say?” Liesel asked him. She was looking back and forth, from the black outlines on his skin to the paper.

I feel like my heart is about to lunge out of my chest.

“Hitler takes Poland,” he answered, and Hans Hubermann slumped into a chair. “Deutschland über Alles,” he whispered, and his voice was not remotely patriotic.

I’m sorry, I-I just can’t stop myself from crying. This is perfect.

That was one war started.

Liesel would soon be in another.

WHAT?

WHAT ON EARTH DOES THAT MEAN?

Nearly a month after school resumed, she was moved up to her rightful year level. 

XD

You might think this was due to her improved reading, but it wasn’t. 

:(

Despite the advancement, she still read with great difficulty. Sentences were strewn everywhere. Words fooled her. The reason she was elevated had more to do with the fact that she became disruptive in the younger class. She answered questions directed to other children and called out. A few times, she was given what was known as a Watschen (pronounced “varchen”) in the corridor. 

***  A DEFINITION ***

Watschen = a good hiding

What? No! This – is – not – FAIR.

She was taken up, put in a chair at the side, and told to keep her mouth shut by the teacher, who also happened to be a nun. At the other end of the classroom, Rudy looked across and waved. Liesel waved back and tried not to smile.
…..
She thought it was enough. It was not enough.

I hate you, Markus Zusak. I HATE YOU.

A halo surrounded the grim reaper nun, Sister Maria. (By the way – I like this human idea of the grim reaper. I like the scythe. It amuses me.)

This book is the most bizarre and horrible thing ever written. And I love it.

Throughout the test, Liesel sat with a mixture of hot anticipation and excruciating fear. She wanted desperately to measure herself, to find out once and for all how her learning was advancing. Was she up to it? Could she even come close to Rudy and the rest of them? 

Edge of my seat here.

Each time Sister Maria looked at her list, a string of nerves tightened in Liesel’s ribs. It started in her stomach but had worked its way up. Soon, it would be around her neck, thick as rope. 

GODDAMN IT! Stop doing this to me, Zusak who is Death!

“Very good.” Sister Maria nodded, perusing the list. “That’s everyone.” 

Phew.

What?
“No!” 

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

A voice practically appeared on the other side of the room. Attached to it was a lemon-haired boy whose bony knees knocked in his pants under the desk. He stretched his hand up and said, “Sister Maria, I think you forgot Liesel.” 

What?
No!

Sister Maria.
Was not impressed. 

<jaw drops> <falls out of chair>

The teacher looked across, for confirmation. “She will read for me later.”
The girl cleared her throat and spoke with quiet defiance. “I can do it now, Sister.” 

And thus begins the greatest exercise in tension ever!

When she looked up again, the room was pulled apart, then squashed back together. All the kids were mashed, right before her eyes, and in a moment of brilliance, she imagined herself reading the entire page in faultless, fluency-filled triumph.

I’m right there with you, Liesel. Seriously, I’m in a daze. Is this book real?

*** A KEY WORD ***

Imagined

FUCK YOU,

MARKUS

ZUSAK.

FUCK YOU

100,000,000

TIMES!

Breathing, breathing, she started to read, but not from the book in front of her. It was something from The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Chapter three: “In the Event of Snow.” She’d memorized it from her papa’s voice.

“In the event of snow,” she spoke, “you must make sure you use a good shovel. You must dig deep; you cannot be lazy. You cannot cut corners.”

Oh my God, this is amazing.

It ended.

The book was snatched from her grasp and she was told.

“Liesel-the corridor.”

As she was given a small Watschen, she could hear them all laughing in the classroom, between Sister Maria’s striking hand. She saw them. All those mashed children. Grinning and laughing. Bathed in sunshine. Everyone laughing but Rudy.

This book should be used as an instrument of torture. I can’t stand this any longer.

In the break, she was taunted. A boy named Ludwig Schmeikl came up to her with a book. “Hey, Liesel,” he said to her, “I’m having trouble with this word. Could you read it for me?” He laughed- a ten-year-old, smugness laughter.

“You Dummkopf-you idiot.”

GODDAMN IT, YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP RIGHT NOW YOU STUPID FUCKING GODDAMN SHITHEAD IDIOT LOATHSOME ABOMINABLE WASTE OF SPACE PIECE OF SHIT BOY!

Nearing the end of the break, the tally of comments stood up at nineteen. By the twentieth, she snapped. It was Schmeikl, back for more. “Come on, Liesel.” He stuck the book under her nose. “Help me out, will you?”

FUCK YOU FUCK YOU you fuckin motherfucker fuck you TO THE POWER OF ONE HUNDRED!!!

Liesel helped him out, all right.

 

 

 

OH HOLY SHIT FUCK YEAH!!!!!

She stood up and took the book from him, and as he smiled over his shoulder at some other kids, she threw it away and kicked him as hard as she could in the vicinity of the groin.

<GRINS> OH YEAAAAH.


Well, as you might imagine, Ludwig Schmeikl certainly buckled, and on the way down, he was punched in the ear. When he landed, he was set upon. When he was set upon, he was slapped and clawed and obliterated by a girl who was utterly consumed with rage. 


FUCK YEAH! MOTHERFUCKER YOU ARE BEING OOOOWNED! <FIST BUMP DE AIR>

His skin was so warm and soft. Her knuckles and fingernails were so frighteningly tough, despite their smallness. “You Saukerl.” Her voice, too, was able to scratch him. “You Arschloch. Can you spell Arschloch for me?”

can you feel the burn can you can you cause you see Liesel Meminger SHE FUCKIN AWWWESOME………

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” a girl commentated with a shriek, “she’s going to kill him!”
Liesel did not kill him.
But she came close.
In fact, probably the only thing that stopped her was the twitchingly ugly, pathetic face of Tommy Müller. Still crowded with adrenaline, Liesel caught sight of him smiling with such absurdity that she dragged him down and started beating
 him up as well.

hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha


“What are you doing?!” he wailed


 

HA HA HA LIESEL MEMINGER IS GIVIN’ YOU THE NO HOLDS BARRED BEATING OF A LIFETIME, BOYS! OH YEAAAAAAAH!

On her knees, she sucked in the air and listened to the groans beneath her. She watched the whirlpool of faces, left and right, and she announced, “I’m not stupid.”
No one argued.

………………………….. (mouth open) …………………………………………………………

Ladies and gentlemen, please give us a great big round of applause for the heavy-weight champion of November 1939 and the world’s biggest female badass since Mary Lennox stood up to Colin Craven way back in 1911, Miss Liesel Meminger! YOU RULE! YOU FUCKING RUUUULE GIRLFRIEND. DOO DOO DOO DOO DOO DOO WHOO-HOO. WHOO-HOO.

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAAA……

“The corridor,” she stated for the second time that day. For the second time that hour, actually.
This time, it was not a small 
Watschen. It was not an average one. This time, it was the mother of all corridor Watschens, one sting of the stick after another, so that Liesel would barely be able to sit down for a week.

I did know this was coming. I just didn’t want to admit it. Because this is what does happen, sadly to say. On my last post, I received the following explanation for a passage I did not understand as “in the larger scheme, we all are doing what we are told to do.” I certainly did understand how that theme is shown here due largely to my own life. There are clear parallels between Liesel and the nun, who are each telling someone what to do and the frustrating beyond aggravating thing that I have pondered for years is that unopposed Sister Maria can assert the same force of justice and she can’t. If Liesel deserved a beating, why didn’t those two boys? But if there’s no higher power to stop you you can do whatever you want and this is likely to form the main conflict of the entire book since this is what kept Hitler in power until 1945.

And there was no laughter from the room. More the silent fear of listening in.

So I’m glad Zusak gives us that. Because it’s true. They knew she knew the consequences and maybe if she’s gotten the worst she has nothing more to lose. So she’ll just let herself have it again and again. So you’d better leave her alone.

Not….
“Sitting in a car with you is like sitting in a car with Lord Voldemort.”
“I think we might tell Mom you said that.”

<awkward shuffling> repeat repeat >AWKWARD SHUFFLING>

The chapter ends solemnly as Liesel and Rudy walk home.

Nearing Himmel Street, in a hurry of thoughts, a culmination of misery swept over her – the failed recital of The Grave Digger’s Handbook, the demolition of her family, her nightmares, the humiliation of the day – and she crouched in the gutter and wept. It all led here.

Things were going well for her. I thought Zusak was being so kind in giving her a nice family she could be happy with instead of the cruel one I had expected, a friend, reading lessons. But no, we couldn’t have that. He really does know how to depict human feelings, doesn’t he? Perfectly.

When finally she finished and stood herself up, he put his arm around her, best-buddy style, and they walked on. There was no request for a kiss. Nothing like that. You can love Rudy for that, if you like.

Oh, I do. I apologize for everything I said to you earlier, Rudy.

And I just want to fall to my knees and weep, too, because I just humiliated myself over the entire Internet and you can’t even begin to know why. My sisters bullied me constantly growing up. They would just sit in the kitchen making fun of me for no reason – I lost it one time, beat them, went on a rampage tearing the house apart – then they ran upstairs and I just sat down on the floor and waited. Then she came down without a word, just that glare of absolute fury on her face as she walked past the wreckage I had strewn in her house.

She grabbed me by the hair and she took me upstairs.

I told her one time – I told her “I can’t take it.” She told me “You better”.

I was smacked over the head with a shoe one time. I went right upstairs to her room. “What did you do to them?”

Why can’t life be fair? Maybe it was for me, when she told me I could stop coming over because of them. But I’m not sure she meant it, because she kept on saying it just to make me quit whining. Even though I wasn’t whining. She took my property away from me, made her stupid ignorant assumptions – “You wanted to give this mean note they wrote to you to your dad so he’d believe you?” Why couldn’t she tell them off? Why did she have to patronize me? Why was it always me? Fuck her. Fuck life. I just got through reading The Secret Garden. Why can’t crazy, happy, ridiculous endings like that happen in real life?

And I thought it would be worse. I thought the last page would be Hans and Rosa talking to Liesel about it, and then I read it and I still thought that. I literally forgot I had finished the chapter. I don’t know what this book has done to me and I’ve barely even started.

Guys, this is my book. All right? Mine. You may have read it first, but this is mine. You can’t have it.

For now, Rudy and Liesel made their way onto Himmel Street in the rain.
He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world.
She was the book thief without the 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 the rain.

This book is one of the best I have ever read and I hate it so much. It has become undeniably clear that Markus Zusak is the greatest literary sadist of all time. I mean, MY GOD, what kind of demented evil human being enjoys torturing their own characters this much? And we’re not even a hundred pages in yet! 9 parts left plus an epilogue and frankly I’m not sure I feel I can continue.


 

Aunt’s reaction to The Book Thief: Chapter 11

  1. After I read the first section, “Well, these do seem like interesting people to spend time with.”
    “Saumensch dreckiges, you never hear anything!” She laughed. “She has hearing problems, too.”
    After the second section, I explained, “That’s their strange way of bonding.” She said, “Oh, she enjoys doing that task for him.”
  2. I explained “The author has a lot of little quirks like this.”
    She said, “Oh, like stage directions.”
  3. I also stopped to explain that he likes to do foreshadowing like this. She said nothing.
  4. She laughed, “Oh, dear!”
    She laughed at the grave book line, and I explained a bit about that history to her.
    She stopped at “Papa dispensed with the sandpaper” to ask if they were using sandpaper for the purpose they were. I said yes, and read on. I explained he was a house painter.
    And you already know her conclusion.
    “Well, that was very nice writing. I think I might have to rent that from you at some point.”

This book is very similar to The Casual Vacancy in the regard that it has a very unusual structure and I wasn’t initially sure how to handle that. It is divided into parts like The Casual Vacancy, but unlike The Casual Vacancy, it actually is formatted into chapters with titles, no less! The chapters are of varying lengths and I was pretty confident I should not post one chapter a day because I want to be more efficient than that, considering just how many chapters there are and how short a lot of them are.

I could post my reading of 1 part per day, but many are so long in total I didn’t feel I was up to that. I recognize that I did that for The Casual Vacancy, but look at how long it took me to finish that book! Also I want to try something different. You see, the book is divided into 10 parts, each containing 8 chapters, except for the epilogue, which contains half that amount (the book being 88 chapters and 548 pages in total). So I will be writing these in the form of 4 chapters per post, taking 2 posts to complete a chapter. The epilogue will of course be all in one post, same as the prologue.

Now let’s proceed with Part One!

It is titled “the grave digger’s handbook” and the subtitle is

featuring:

himmel street – the art of saumensching – an ironfisted woman – a kiss attempt – jesse owens – sandpaper – the smell of friendship – a heavyweight champion – and the mother of all watschens

This is a very skilled author at getting you to buy his book if you’re skimming around the aisle, continually tantalizing you with all these mysterious elements. And that’s probably why I’ve been hearing about this book for years. In fact, it’s strange I waited this long to read it.

(One note: According to my German-to-English translator, “saumensch” means “sow pig” and when I googled it I found out that is an insult. And “watschen” means “slap in the face”. So apparently people are going to get insulted and slapped in the face. This should be fun. Let’s proceed.)

ARRIVAL ON HIMMEL STREET

Death begins by taking us back to the scene where he first met “the book thief”.

We got only a description of the aftermath of the boy’s death the first time around, where we had already come in late. So now Zusak stops being vague and portrays the full incident for us in detail. Well, sort of, after writing brief summaries like this.

***  A SPECTULARLY TRAGIC MOMENT ***

A train was moving quickly.

It was packed with humans.

A six-year-old boy died in the third carriage. 

I can’t help but feel that there is a bit too much style-over-substance going on in Zusak’s writing, because he follows this by saying, “We now know, of course, that the boy didn’t make it.” Yes, you’ve told us that three times now.

But this of course is my attempt at being an objective critic. As a reader, I’m only a little ashamed to admit that I’m terribly enjoying the whole way this book is written.

And I admit that once he’s through with the idiosyncratic summaries, descriptions like this are very chilling, insightful and well-written:

When the coughing stopped, there was nothing but the nothingness of life moving on with a shuffle, or a near-silent twitch. A suddenness found its way onto his lips then, which were a corroded brown color and peeling, like old paint. In desperate need of redoing.

And we then learn the characters’ names:

With one eye open, one still in a dream, the book thief-also known as Liesel Meminger-could see without question that her younger brother, Werner, was now sideways and dead.

We also get this shocking bit of information:

Prior to waking up, the book thief was dreaming about the Führer, Adolf Hitler. In the dream, she was attending a rally at which he spoke, looking at the skull-colored part in his hair and the perfect square of his mustache. She was listening contentedly to the torrent of words spilling from his mouth. His sentences glowed in the light.

That’s right, our main character is a little girl who worships Hitler. Well, now I have nothing but respect for Markus Zusak because I doubt there are many authors in the world who would be able to get away with this and have us accept it. I especially love that this isn’t played as a big deal at all, and nothing about the Nazi Party is even mentioned again in the rest of the chapter.

Then we get another info dump (and Zusak explains that the boy died for the fifth time, perhaps because his editors insisted that prologue was SO confusing):

It was January 1939. She was nine years old, soon to be ten.

So this takes place before World War II, then, and before Hitler committed his worst atrocities! Yeah, that’s probably the only way this could have been published, isn’t it?

I think Death’s detachment and somewhat sarcastic wit is explained here. He simply can’t understand human emotions.

And the shaking.

Why do they always shake them?

Yes, I know, I know, I assume it has something to do with instinct. To stem the flow of truth. Her heart at that point was slippery and hot, and loud, so loud so loud.

We are then taken to the point where we left off and learn that the guards took Liesel and her mother with the corpse to the next township and left them there.

The narrative then begins moving quickly as we go to Liesel attending her brother’s funeral, where we get this absolutely baffling bit of foreshadowing:

*** AN OBSERVATION ***

A pair of train guards.

A pair of grave diggers.

When it came down to it, one of them called the shots.

The other did what he was told.

The question is, what if the other is a lot more than one?

This book is obviously made to be re-read, because I don’t have a clue what events this is leading up to in the plot.

For two days, I went about my business. I traveled the globe as always, handing souls to the conveyor belt of eternity. I watched them trundle passively on. Several times, I warned myself that I should keep a good distance from the burial of Liesel Meminger’s brother. I did not heed my advice.

But why? Death just told us that he had been capturing countless souls. So why does the incident with Liesel’s brother mean something to him? What is drawing him to Liesel when this is only the first time he’s met her at this point?

I like that Zusak acknowledges that humans in these times can get just as detached as Death, in disturbing passages like this:

Standing to Liesel’s left, the grave diggers were rubbing their hands together and whining about the snow and the current digging conditions. “So hard getting through all the ice,” and so forth. One of them couldn’t have been more than fourteen. An apprentice.

FOURTEEN! My God, I couldn’t imagine being fourteen and having to have this job. I’m so glad I wasn’t alive at this time to deal with all this death. I mean, I did my best to avoid looking at my poor adoptive grandfather’s corpse just a year and a few months ago!

Zusak shows he, however, is not really as emotionally detached as Death as he portrays Liesel’s heart wrenching emotional reaction at her brother’s funeral. (I remember sinking onto the couch in a side room emotionally drained after only a few minutes at my step-grandfather’s funeral service.)

But here’s an interesting development!

*** A SMALL IMAGE, PERHAPS ***

TWENTY METERS AWAY

When the dragging was done, the mother and

the girl stood and breathed.

There was something black and rectangular

lodged in the snow.

Only the girl saw it.

She bent down and picked it up and

held it firmly in her fingers.

The book had silver writing on it.

The book was dropped by the gravedigger on the previous page. I would have mentioned it then, but I didn’t want to disrupt the flow of what I was talking about.

We also get an idea of some of her personal insights (a bit ala Anne Frank?) contained in that book:

In the written words of the book thief herself, the journey continued like everything had happened.

But now I’m confused. Death said at the end of the prologue this was Liesel’s book. So why is it still being narrated by Death like this when it should have changed to the detailing of events that Liesel wrote? And Death said he saw her 3 times, so why does Werner’s funeral not count? In fact, I believe these may just be inconsistencies, and I’m not going to excuse Zusak for that.

Also, though I like his “as if from a torn package” imagery, this comparison annoys me:

The impoverished always try to keep moving, as if relocating might help. They ignore the reality that a new version of the same old problem will be waiting at the end of the trip-the relative you cringe to kiss.

Sorry, I think people in these circumstances have bigger problems than not wanting to kiss one of their relatives. FYI.

But now we get this very tear jerking goodbye, as Liesel leaves her mother at the train platform to go off to live with her foster family:

There was the chaos of goodbye.

It was a goodbye that was wet, with the girl’s head buried into the woolly, worn shallows of her mother’s coat. There had been some more dragging.

Good God, I can’t even begin to imagine what this could be like for Liesel. She’s a nine-year-old girl who’s already lost her brother at the age of only 6 years old, and now she has to say goodbye to her mother as well and go off to live with people she’s never even known. Just… terrible. I mean, wow. What an absolutely awful experience.

Zusak does flat-out say that Himmel Street isn’t the worst place Liesel could go, but these don’t sound like very pleasant people, do they?

The Hubermanns.

They’d been expecting a girl and a boy and would be paid a small allowance for having them. Nobody wanted to be the one to tell Rosa Hubermann that the boy didn’t survive the trip. In fact, no one ever really wanted to tell her anything. As far as dispositions go, hers wasn’t really enviable, although she had a good record with foster kids in the past. Apparently, she’d straightened a few out.

And when Liesel finally arrives, we get this interesting bit of writing from Zusak:

*** A PHOTO OF HIMMEL STREET ***

The buildings appear to be glued together, mostly small houses

and apartment blocks that look nervous.

There is murky snow spread out like carpet.

There is concrete, empty hat-stand trees, and gray air.

Well, Markus, you are a rather smug man, aren’t you? Thinking you could describe it so well in three sentences it would be just like we were looking at a picture? But you did do a pretty solid job giving us a description in your own loosely detailed way, I’ll give you that.

It seems strange Zusak ends his description of Hans Hubermann with the statement that he rolls his own cigarettes after saying only that he is “very tall”, especially considering all the description his wife gets, who proves to be just as unpleasant as we had suspected when Liesel finds herself unable to get out of the car.

It took nearly fifteen minutes to coax her from the car. It was the tall man who did it.

Quietly.

So there is perhaps some hope Hans may be able to provide a breath of fresh air at this place for Liesel. But it’s obvious the poor, brotherless, motherless, Nazi-loving girl is going to have a poor time of it, isn’t she? Even if Zusak does try to lighten the mood with comic relief like this:

People started to gather on the street until Rosa Hubermann swore at them, after which they reversed back, whence they came.

*** A TRANSLATION OF ***

ROSA HUBERMANN’S ANNOUNCEMENT

“What are you assholes looking at?”

There isn’t much left in this chapter, except this description of Liesel’s book that leaves me a bit skeptical:

*** THE GRAVE DIGGER’S HANDBOOK ***

A Twelve-Step Guide to

Grave-Digging Success

Published by the Bayern Cemetery Association

I was picturing something like a notebook if this is going to function as a journal for her, and this leaves me a bit annoyed with Zusak. I hope he explains how Liesel writes in this, because it doesn’t sound like the kind of book a person could easily turn into a personal journal with printed words already over the pages.

The last sentence startled me, however:

The book thief had struck for the first time-the beginning of an illustrious career.

WHAT? I thought it was only this book that gave Liesel the titular name! So one of the questions Zusak opened us with is still unanswered? Why does Liesel continue to steal books?

Well… this has me intrigued.

GROWING UP A SAUMENSCH

Death begins the chapter by…. immediately explaining this situation better to us.

Yes, an illustrious career.

I should hasten to admit, however, that there was a considerable hiatus between the first stolen book and the second. Another noteworthy point is that the first was stolen from snow and the second from fire. Not to omit that others were also given to her. All told, she owned fourteen books, but she saw her story as being made up predominantly of ten of them. Of those ten, six were stolen, one showed up at the kitchen table, two were made for her by a hidden Jew, and one was delivered by a soft, yellow-dressed afternoon.

Well… thank you for all that, Death. But this is obviously sowing the pieces for what the rest of the book will be about, right? Because this is a very long book and the main plot clearly hasn’t even started yet. And we clearly need elaboration on a lot of these situations. I’ll give Zusak credit for how well he’s planned this thing out. And I see Liesel is just using the books as journals. But will her journal-writing become something more in time?

Zusak continues setting up scenarios. Apparently, they will end up in shelters and going to Dachau, eventually. (Which is a big deal! Liesel is Jewish, now?! I knew the worst of the insane anti-Semitism took place during the war, but still, wow.)

But Zusak/Death acknowledges:

In any case, that’s getting ahead of myself. Before we make it to any of that, we first need to tour Liesel Meminger’s beginnings on Himmel Street and the art of saumensching:

Which is….? Despite that colon, Zusak immediately leads us into a description of Liesel’s appearance. This does give us several interesting details, however.

Liesel has brown eyes, which is foreboding as this was not part of Hitler’s idea of the master race.

Perhaps she received them from her father, but she had no way of knowing, as she couldn’t remember him. There was really only one thing she knew about her father. It was a label she did not understand.

I’m glad to hear about Liesel’s father, because I was wondering what had happened to him. We get the revelation that he was a communist, though Liesel doesn’t even understand enough to know what a communist is. I admire how Zusak understands the mindset of a child and how horrible it must have been to live through a time when even grown men were left shocked and confused by the events happening in politics.

Sadly, Liesel’s father’s political affiliations may mean that he was killed or arrested by the government. But in any case, we know what happened to a teacher at a boarding house Liesel stayed at in the past:

One day, that woman was taken away for questioning. She didn’t come back.

I am quickly becoming aware that Liesel has more reasons to be afraid for the future than she realizes, and the poor child is already upset enough as it is. Zusak is adept at making us get inside her head and sympathize with her:

No matter how many times she was told that she was loved, there was no recognition that the proof was in the abandonment. Nothing changed the fact that she was a lost, skinny child in another foreign place, with more foreign people. Alone. 

Poor thing. Poor dear, dear thing. And we have more dire foreshadowing:

The roof was flat and there was a shallow basement for storage. It was supposedly not a basement of adequate depth. In 1939, this wasn’t a problem. Later, in ’42 and ’43, it was. When air raids started, they always needed to rush down the street to a better shelter.

And explanation of our title:

Sau, of course, refers to pigs. In the case of Saumensch, it serves to castigate, berate, or plain humiliate a female.

Yes, as you might have guessed, Rosa is definitely not making Liesel’s new life happy for her:
Saumensch, du dreckiges!” Liesel’s foster mother shouted that first evening when she refused to have a bath. “You filthy pig! Why won’t you get undressed?” She was good at being furious. In fact, you could say that Rosa Hubermann had a face decorated with constant fury. That was how the creases were made in the cardboard texture of her complexion.

Fortunately, though (and I mean “fortunately” as in “it’s probably the only thing keeping her from suicide”), she has Hans, wonderful Hans, who bonds with her in an unusual way: rolling cigarettes together.

Then Zusak goes on describing Hans in such a beautiful poetic way I just want to quote the whole thing. (And Death fortunately spoils that he manages to survive World War II. Yay.)

When he turned the light on in the small, callous washroom that night, Liesel observed the strangeness of her foster father’s eyes. They were made of kindness, and silver. Like soft silver, melting Liesel, upon seeing those eyes, understood that Hans Hubermann was worth a lot.

I love you already, Hans. Never change.

And when you get to the “SOME FACTS ABOUT ROSA HUBERMANN”, I was just rolling my eyes.

Her cooking was atrocious.

She possessed the unique ability to aggravate almost anyone she evcr met.

But then we get this that simply took me aback!

But she did love Liesel Meminger.

Her way of showing it just happened to be strange.

It involved bashing her with wooden spoon and words at various intervals.

<sigh> Well, that’s unfortunate. But we do see her becoming warmer towards Liesel, at least.

Surprisingly the narrative then goes forward several months and it’s amazing how happy things are for Liesel and her foster family.

“Yes, Mama,” Mama corrected her. “Saumensch. Call me Mama when you talk to me.”

At that moment, Hans Hubermann had just completed rolling a cigarette, having licked the paper and joined it all up. He looked over at Liesel and winked. She would have no trouble calling him Papa.

Wow. I really never expected any of this. I like how for all the darkness and cynicism in this book, Zusak hasn’t let us become overcome with it. He isn’t completely pessimistic and he will portray kindness and good people in the world. I mean, we started off with a little boy dying, I’m imagining the worst situation possible for Liesel, and this is all perfectly LOVELY. And we don’t get enough lovely stories, you know that. From reading The Secret Garden, I’ve reflected on that. It’s all conflict, conflict, conflict, and there’s no joy in solving the problem. We need conflict, don’t get me wrong, we need conflict, but we also need moments like this.

And I must have nice things. Just for a little while.

THE WOMAN WITH THE IRON FIST

I admire that Zusak isn’t letting us forget what a horrible experience Liesel has been through, however. Losing your brother at that age would have a deep effect on you, and this is certainly portrayed here.

She would wake up swimming in her bed, screaming, and drowning in the flood of sheets. On the other side of the room, the bed that was meant for her brother floated boatlike in the darkness. Slowly, with the arrival of consciousness, it sank, seemingly into the floor. This vision didn’t help matters, and it would usually be quite a while before the screaming stopped.

But thankfully she has Hans to help her through it!

Possibly the only good to come out of these nightmares was that it brought Hans Hubermann, her new papa, into the room, to soothe her, to love her.

He came in every night and sat with her. The first couple of times, he simply stayed – a stranger to kill the aloneness. A few nights after that, he whispered, “Shhh, I’m here, it’s all right.” After three weeks, he held her. Trust was accumulated quickly, due primarily to the brute strength of the man’s gentleness, his thereness. The girl knew from the outset that Hans Hubermann would always appear midscream, and he would not leave.

Oh, Hans, you remain the most wonderful person in the world.

*** A DEFINITION NOT FOUND ***

IN THE DICTIONARY

Not leaving: an act of trust and love,

often deciphered by children

I’m trying to critique it, but I really just find myself adoring this book. And given the way it started, I can’t believe it’s staying this lovely this long.

A few times, purely to incense Mama a little further, he also brought the instrument to the kitchen and played through breakfast.

Hans, you are great. Great.

We do get a rather grim reminder that this is being narrated by Death, however:

In the kitchen on those mornings, Papa made the accordion live. I guess it makes sense, when you really think about it.

How do you tell if something’s alive?

You check for breathing.

And then the book has heard what I just said and changes the tone to Liesel’s despondency over missing her mother and brother, and this grim foretelling of the war:

The Hubermanns had two of their own, but they were older and had moved out. Hans Junior worked in the center of Munich, and Trudy held a job as a housemaid and child minder. Soon, they would both be in the war. One would be making bullets. The other would be shooting them. 

And getting shot by them???? And at Liesel’s tenth birthday, we get this piece of absolutely horrible:

Ten years old meant Hitler Youth. Hitler Youth meant a small brown uniform. Being female, Liesel was enrolled into what was called the BDM.

And yet none of this is played up. Zusak knows we will be horrified, so he doesn’t tell us to be horrified. In fact, he only brings up the Nazi aspect to Liesel’s BDM meetings once:

The first thing they did there was make sure your “heil Hitler” was working properly. Then you were taught to march straight, roll bandages, and sew up clothes. You were also taken hiking and on other such activities. Wednesday and Saturday were the designated meeting days, from three in the afternoon until five.

He acts if it was just an ordinary club experience for a child, because of course that’s all it was for Liesel at the time.

In fact, this chapter really just plays as a long description of what Liesel’s life with the Hubermanns was like. It goes on to describe Liesel’s anxieties when Hans goes to work, Rosa ranting about the rich people whose clothes she washes as she goes on these errands with Liesel. It serves to give a flavor for who she is, as Zusak makes it clear Rosa loves nothing more than complaining and carrying out a ridiculous feud with a neighbor.

None of it really adds anything to the plot (you could probably just skip this chapter, in fact), but it does serve the purpose of letting you get to know these characters better and become attached to them so you’ll care when things are happening to them in the plot later. A lot of it’s pretty funny, too, with beautiful writing at the end. And I love when Zusak gets self-referential:

Frau Holtzapfel was a wiry woman and quite obviously spiteful. She’d never married but had two sons, a few years older than the Hubermann offspring. Both were in the army and both will make cameo appearances by the time we’re finished here, I assure you.

Hopefully not as corpses, though I’m not going to let any of this pleasantness distract me from the fact that we’re obviously going to get plenty more of those.

THE KISS (A Childhood Decision Maker)

This has recently been turned into a movie, which has not been nearly as acclaimed or loved as the book. Many may wonder why, but I think the answer is obvious when you look at how well Zusak takes advantage of the fun you can have with writing a book. You can get away with idiosyncrasies in writing and description that simply do not translate to the screen.

The opening of this chapter gives a very good example of this. Here, Zusak flavors his trademark style of writing with a lot of exposition about the new characters he is introducing, with another touch of his self-referential streak:

* Rudy Steiner – the boy next door who was obsessed with the black American athlete Jesse Owens.

* Frau Diller – the staunch Aryan corner-shop owner.

* Tommy Müller - a kid whose chronic ear infections had resulted in several operations, a pink river of skin painted across his face, and a tendency to twitch. (Jesus. Between this and Roger Ebert’s belief his cancer was caused by radiation treatments he had for ear infections as a child, let me state again how glad I am I didn’t grow up in this time, because I had ear infections constantly when I was 2-3 years old, and when my dad took me to the doctor, every nurse in the building had to hold me in place while a doctor stuck a sharp tool into my ear and removed an enormous glob of ear wax that made my father understand why I spent hours sitting around screaming in agony.)

* A man known primarily as “Pfiffikus” – whose vulgarity made Rosa Hubermann look like a wordsmith and a saint.

And I like how Zusak has fun hinting at/spoiling areas the story will go:

The Steiners had six children. One of them, the infamous Rudy, would soon become Liesel’s best friend, and later, her partner and sometime catalyst in crime.

I watched Shutter Island recently and that was an example of a book that translated very well as a movie, but things like this really can’t be copied in a film. Still, it makes a bit more sense than the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books being turned into films, despite the fact that they hinge entirely on being diaries.

Daniel left a reply on my last post explaining that there is not much of a difference between the YA and adult classifications in Australia and the book was not written as a YA novel, but at this point, the book does begin to feel like a conventional American idea of a YA novel.

The protagonist is after all a 10-year-old girl, so I would probably object if the novel did not depict the way life is for a child. But it does necessitate a change of tone from the opening. We start off with horrible untimely deaths and grim musing on the inevitable, and here we get bogged down in children playing soccer games and passages like this.

This is probably very effective, though, given how this world is going to inevitably be thrown into chaos come September.

It does seem strange that the very brief bullying of Liesel described isn’t given a bit more time, however, as you’d think it would have been a big deal to her:

Garbage cans were used to mark out the goals.
Being the new kid in town, Liesel was immediately shoved between one pair of those cans. (Tommy Müller was finally set free, despite being the most useless soccer player Himmel Street had ever seen.)

But this is all build-up to Rudy Steiner throwing a snowball into Liesel’s face and subsequently becoming her best friend.

He was not the junior misogynistic type of boy at all. He liked girls a lot, and he liked Liesel (hence, the snowball). In fact, Rudy Steiner was one of those audacious little bastards who actually fancied himself with the ladies. Every childhood seems to have exactly such a juvenile in its midst and mists. He’s the boy who refuses to fear the opposite sex, purely because everyone else embraces that particular fear, and he’s the type who is unafraid to make a decision. In this case, Rudy had already made up his mind about Liesel Meminger.

This was me in my first years of school. Nearly all my friends were with girls, Miranda being my absolute best friend.

In fact, the innocence that these chapters have descended into reminds me of those years, when everything seemed so simpler, didn’t it? Of course, it wasn’t. People talk about times like this as being simpler days, but they weren’t really. Anyone who’s seen “Good Night, and Good Luck” knows the 50s weren’t the time of Richie and the Fonz. And Zusak portrays just that masterfully as the chapter goes on:

The shop itself was white and cold, and completely bloodless. The small house compressed beside it shivered with a little more severity than the other buildings on Himmel Street. Frau Diller administered this feeling, dishing it out as the only free item from her premises. She lived for her shop and her shop lived for the Third Reich. Even when rationing started later in the year, she was known to sell certain hard-to-get items under the counter and donate the money to the Nazi Party. On the wall behind her usual sitting position was a framed photo of the Führer. If you walked into her shop and didn’t say “heil Hitler,” you wouldn’t be served. As they walked by, Rudy drew Liesel’s attention to the bullet-proof eyes leering from the shop window. “Say ‘heil‘ when you go in there,” he warned her stiffly. “Unless you want to walk a little farther.”

And then it gets particularly extreme here:

It was a place nobody wanted to stay and look at, but almost everyone did. Shaped like a long, broken arm, the road contained several houses with lacerated windows and bruised walls. The Star of David was painted on their doors. Those houses were almost like lepers. At the very least, they were infected sores on the injured German terrain.

“Schiller Strasse,” Rudy said. “The road of yellow stars.”

But this has me confused. It seemed to be implied that Liesel was Jewish, so shouldn’t this be a bigger deal to her? But unlike my infinitely arrogant mother, I don’t believe my assumptions are the be-all, end-all, so as it is, I have to wonder why they think this is happening.

The book then takes an interesting turn. We get some hinting about Rudy’s interest in Liesel perhaps being less platonic:

*** THE ONLY THING WORSE THAN ***

A BOY WHO HATES YOU

A boy who loves you.

Then after an encounter with the aforementioned Pfiffikus, Rudy challenges Liesel to a race down the railroad track, and we appear to get absolute confirmation:

“What do you bet, you little Saumensch? Have you got any money?”

“Of course not. Do you?”

“No.” But Rudy had an idea. It was the lover boy coming out of him. “If I beat you, I get to kiss you.” He crouched down and began rolling up his trousers.

They call off the race after falling in the mud, however, so Rosa gets mad at Liesel for getting dirty and the chapter ends with no kissing.

It’s strange how casually Liesel seems to take this, however. I think at ten years old, it’s fairly safe to say Rudy was romantically inclined towards her in wanting to kiss, and so I can say I must recant my admission I was like him. There was never anything even close to romantic interest in my friendships with those girls I mentioned in school. Though perhaps it would have developed there, I don’t know.

Well, that’s it for now. I have to say I am enjoying this book quite a lot. Much more so than The Casual Vacancy, in fact. It’s very well-written in a light way, and I find it very compulsive reading. I’m glad the book has ended on a relatively peaceful note because it’ll be a shame when the war starts and everything goes to hell in a handbasket.
(Also, I may not be able to deliver the regular updates I promised. Sorry about that.)

Hello, WordPress readers! It’s a pleasure to be back with you today. For those of you who read my previous posts and liked them, I hope you enjoy these, too. If you haven’t read them, I hope you will like following along with these.

Honestly, one of the reasons I was hesitant to return was that I’m not entirely happy with my reviews of The Casual Vacancy. I was trying to combine professional analysis with the joy of reading and I’m not sure I always did that well. I feel I was limited by not having the “big picture” and after reading Rowling’s answer on Goodreads I think I missed a lot of what she was ultimately trying to achieve. Also I don’t think I addressed enough of her themes and ideas that she was getting across in writing.

I also think I was too hesitant to critique Rowling. For example, I actually used a variation of the phrase “Rowling does a good job with this” 35 times! Seriously, I counted! That must be annoying even to people who worship Rowling, which is probably who I came across as, honestly. I will therefore be avoiding any repetition of that awful phrase. Or “Zusak makes this feel realistic and like it’s playing out naturally”, for that matter.

To sum up, in these reviews I will be willing to critique Markus Zusak, and in many ways I will be writing this in an attempt to improve my criticism. I’m looking forward to it, though, as it clearly is a very widely loved book (the edition I have has 2 pages of praise, but then Water for Elephants has more than that, so who cares?).

I was planning on doing a review of Saving Mr. Banks, then doing the review of Mary Poppins Comes Back, however, then reviewing this book if I enjoyed that, but I had to order that book, so this is the one I will be starting on. They told me The Book Thief was checked out frequently as it is very popular. Which is quite a compliment, considering it’s been published in the U.S. for almost 8 years right now!

The prologue has this subtitle:

a mountain range of rubble

in which our narrator introduces:

himself – the colors – and the book thief

So I have to give Zusak credit. He has the reader interested with 6 questions which must be answered right off the bat.

1. Why are we at a mountain range?
2. Why has the mountain range been reduced to nothing but rubble?
3. Who is the narrator?
4. Who is the book thief?
5. Why is the book thief stealing books?
6. What do colors have to do with anything?

The prologue is divided into four parts, the first of which is titled:
DEATH AND CHOCOLATE

So there are two more elements that we need to figure out how they interplay.

The book begins as if to answer these questions in a straight-forward fashion:

First the colors.

Then the humans.

It then throws an immediate curve-ball at us, however, with:

That’s usually how I see things.

Or at least, how I try.

So we have our first obvious sign that the narrator is not human, and then we get this pleasant bit of information arbitrarily hurled at us:

*** HERE IS A SMALL FACT ***

You are going to die.

Well, what in the world was I worried about? This book is opening exactly the same way The Casual Vacancy did! Ha ha. But seriously, as the narrator continues, it now appears he is in fact a disturbingly sociopathic serial killer, but then Zusak seems to recognize just how much he’s alienated his readers, so he stops to explain:

-Of course, an introduction.

A beginning.

Where are my manners?

He then proceeds with very dark writing that is a good imagining of what it would be like to be Death, I suppose! This book is very popular among Goths, isn’t it?

But then we have a very strange preoccupation with color.

The question is, what color will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying?

Personally, I like a chocolate-colored sky. Dark, dark chocolate. People say it suits me. I do, however, try to enjoy every color I see-the whole spectrum. A billion or so flavors, none of them quite the same, and a sky to slowly suck on. It takes the edge off the stress. It helps me relax.

*** A SMALL THEORY ***

People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and ends, but to me it’s quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses.

In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them.

Yeah, in case you can’t tell, the style of this book is very idiosyncratic, and I like that! I just can’t figure out where this is really going yet, though.

Needless to say, I vacation in increments. In colors.

Still, it’s possible that you might be asking, why does he even need a vacation? What does he need distraction from?

Which brings me to my next point.

It’s the leftover humans.

The survivors.

They’re the ones I can’t stand to look at, although on many occasions I still fail. 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. They have punctured hearts. They have beaten lungs. 

I’m glad I didn’t read this when I was a young child, because I swear I was so easily scared. I was traumatized by Secret of NIMH 2, All Dogs Go to Heaven 2, but most of all my greatest terror was of the Tale-Spin episode “The Balooest of the Blue Bloods.”

But reading it now, I find myself enjoying the blackly comic edge to it. There is something unmistakably enjoyable to it, despite how disturbing it really is.

Death now hints at the plot, which apparently centers around a person who has lost many loved ones. And Zusak gives us details of the story he is about to tell:

*A girl

* Some words

*An accordionist (??????????????)

* Some fanatical Germans

* A Jewish fist fighter

* And quite a lot of thievery

 Well, sounds like this should be very interesting. And then he gives us this last tantalizing sentence:

I saw the book thief three times.

This is clearly very heavily inspired by The Twilight Zone (a real shame Rod Serling never lived to read it), and Zusak is clearly a VERY skilled writer, and good at audience manipulation. Many books have such boring opening chapters that only exist to set up the plot, but this, right down from the prose to the short number of pages this takes, is all carefully designed to make the reader turn the page.

BESIDE THE RAILWAY LINE

All right, this book is hilarious.

Some of you are most likely thinking that white is not really a color and all of that tired sort of nonsense. Well, I’m here to tell you that it is. White is without question a color, and personally, I don’t think you want to argue with me.

White is in fact the presence of all color, so he’s right. (My dad’s favorite colors, by contrast, are gray and silver. Lol.)

But then….

Next to the train line, footprints were shaken to their shins. Trees were blankets of ice.

As you might expect, someone had died.

And it’s apparently the family member of a woman who has been left with only one daughter. I have to say it’s amazing the way Zusak leaves us unsure how to feel about the book we’re reading.

“Well,” was the response, “we can’t just leave them like this, can we?”

The tall one was losing patience. “Why not?”

This is obviously a very cruel world we’re dealing with. Zusak has made that clear, but the second guard does at least show some decency in allowing the family on the train.

The dynamic train guard duo made their way back to the mother, the girl, and the small male corpse. I clearly remember that my breath was loud that day. I’m surprised the guards didn’t notice me as they walked by.

It’s clear what Zusak is doing now. He’s using the character of Death as an embodiment of the cruelty and mass loss of those World War II days, as an attempt to put a voice to it.

And I was only feeling sorry for this poor girl who is one of the “leftover humans“, as Death would say. But then:

Tears were frozen to the book thief’s face.

Well, Zusak is a master of the WHAM line, isn’t he?

THE ECLIPSE

The story goes to describe another of Death’s victims, the 24-year-old victim of a plane crash. And here we get an explanation for the disparity of death in our world. Why do some people die so young, both in tragic years like this book’s, and in our everyday life, while others live so long?

***SOME OTHER SMALL FACTS***

Sometimes I arrive too early.

I rush,

and some people cling longer

to life than expected.

(And I can relate to all this because it makes me imagine my uncle. I never knew him, but from the black-and-white photo of him, an innocent youth working at a drugstore, I can easily imagine him in late October of ‘67, hit by a train at the age of 18 driving his car across the tracks.)

But then the book thief comes into play again after a boy to check the cock-pit.

Years had passed, but I recognized her.

She was panting.

This is probably a sign that she came close to dying years ago, but all the same: Who is this girl? And why is she stealing books?

I did like that we get a compassionate gesture from someone before Death takes this man’s soul (at least he seems to be the only one in the wreck):

From the toolbox, the boy took out, of all things, a teddy bear.

He reached in through the torn windshield and placed it on the pilot’s chest.

The smiling bear sat huddled among the crowded wreckage of the man and the blood.

Then we get a confusing detail:

[The dead pilot's] eyes were cold and brown – like coffee stains – and the last scrawl from above formed what, to me, appeared an odd, yet familiar, shape. A signature.

I’m sorry. What kind of scrawl? The author uses a lot of metaphorical language and I’m not sure what this is referring to in this case. It’s probably foreshadowing something that will make sense later on, though, like the Dark Mark in Harry Potter.

As with many of the others, when I  began my journey away, there seemed a quick shadow again, a final moment of eclipse-the recognition of another soul gone.

You see, to me, for just a moment, despite all of the colors that touch and grapple with what I see in this world, I will often catch an eclipse when a human dies.

I’ve seen millions of them.

I’ve seen more eclipses than I care to remember.

It is amazing that we’re only eleven pages in and already two people have died. If I ever thought I would be getting a happy book for my next project after The Casual Vacancy…

THE FLAG

Back with the third and final time Death saw the book-thieving girl…. and then we get a description of bombs dropping on a street full of playing children. I swear, this is practically too much to take.

Within minutes, mounds of concrete and earth were stacked and piled. The streets were ruptured veins. Blood streamed till it was dried on the road, and the bodies were stuck there, like driftwood after the flood.

They were glued down, every last one of them. A packet of souls.

Is this really a YA novel? I mean, I’ve read The Hunger Games, but this… my, how Zusak is good at creating mental pictures using figurative language.

I was just about to leave when I found her kneeling there.

A mountain range of rubble was written, designed, erected around her. She was clutching at a book.

So that’s what the subtitle meant. I was wondering when it would come in.

And this is obviously after Death saw her at the plane crash. It seems strange how she survived him before and I’m not even sure if she dies here or if she’s taken to the hospital.

But what’s important is that Death takes her book from the garbage and we see himself puzzling over it, greatly fascinated. The story is being set up to be told in flashback now, when we will learn of this mysterious girl.

I would watch the places where we intersect, and marvel at what the girl saw and how she survived. That is the best I can do- watch it fall into line with everything else I spectated during this time.

We get clear proof this takes place during World War II, then, as Death’s memory of her is of her wearing a swastika flag. (So she was a Nazi? Or perhaps she was made to wear that. Who knows?)

But this is a surprising inclusion:

…I have kept her story to retell. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt – an immense leap of an attempt – to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it.

But why would Death want to prove that? This is so strange. And stranger still is how traditionally the prologue ends, much like The Tale of Desperaux, actually:

Here it is. One of a handful.

The Book Thief.

If you feel like it, come with me. I will tell you a story.

I’ll show you something.

Well, this is obviously another book that will make more sense once I’ve finished it and have the full “big picture” (in a style that’s actually very similar to When You Reach Me!). And due to the unusual nature, it’s not as easy to critique it as I thought it would be. But this serves its purpose as a prologue well. It’s interesting and I think I’m going to like reading the rest of it.

Hello, fellow bloggers! I am pleased to announce that, contrary to what I previously stated, I intend to resurrect my blog to review The Book Thief by Markus Zusak in the vein of my previous entry into this site, chapter-by-chapter with commentary/criticism.

As of now,  I am aware of only three things about the book:

  • It takes place during World War II.
  • There is a character named Liesel.
  • It is narrated by Death. I remembered hearing that recently.

My read-through of the prologue will be uploaded on Saturday and posts will continue to be uploaded throughout the week. There will be no more posts on weekends as I continue blogging the book.

As for when I have finished with that I have written out a list of books I would like to review in this venue, but I have not yet decided that I will be writing reviews for more than one story. My time is currently free for such frivolities, but events have the potential to transpire which may take up more of my hours. Also there are other obligations I plan to attend to currently that may conflict with the writing of reviews on this blog.

I made no secret that the time spent blogging my read-through of The Casual Vacancy gave me a great deal of stress, but as the months have gone by I have found myself yearning for those days and pondering whether I could have fun doing more reviews. So once I have finished my blogging of The Book Thief, I will consider whether I will find it satisfactory to review more books, and if so you will be presented with the full list. As of now I will not disclose it.

This book is very critically acclaimed and popular, so I expect I will enjoy reading it.

I recognize I put a great deal of finality into my last upload on this site, but does it not seem odd that a site titled “Kirksbooks” should exist only to review one book after all?

My feelings about writing this post are very strange and difficult to put into words. I wanted to have this blog updated daily, but due to Rowling’s long, long parts and my damnable laziness, it took me nearly three months to finish it. And yet oddly enough it feels like such a short time ago that I set out on this journey. And now it has come to an end, and to be honest, I don’t want it to end. I don’t want to finish this journey. And yet operating this blog has given me such a great deal of stress, and I want to get this post up before the end of the year. To be honest, I think that’s why I don’t want to finish this post. Because of that stress, that I feel that I have such a huge obligation to write the greatest post I have ever written. This is why I will not be writing a “wrapping up” section, as Daniel has done, as it would imply that I felt all my other posts to be inferior, when I poured effort into them and I feel that some of my best work is in them. And I am not going to post readings of any more books. This is the last post of my blog, period. This project has caused me a great deal of stress. To be honest, the only reason I am completing this is because Daniel requested that I continue the posts way back when I was having trouble posting “Tuesday“. Other than him, I have not even the reward of readers.

I realize I have put a great deal of negativity into this post and now my entire blog series in general, in retrospect. And I do not want anyone to believe that I did not enjoy reading this book. I did. For months leading up to this book anticipation built up inside of me. I read the full profile of Rowling by The New Yorker a day or two before the book was released, and I went out and bought it with my own money on opening day.

And now I have finished reading it. We have reached the end of our journey. The Casual Vacancy is complete.

And so we should ask ourselves: What was the main point of this novel? How do those themes come across in the novel? Has Rowling given her first adult novel a satisfactory conclusion?

The book was advertised as a political novel, and I expected and anticipated humorous political scheming and debates, but one thing that surprised and disappointed me about the novel was that the election really wasn’t important at all. It only served in the background to further the characters’ plots. And in this final part, with the election long won, it is the characters’ plots that must be resolved.

The resolution of Shirley & Howard‘s storyline opens the chapter (the part is divided into four sections, but for once they are not numbered, perhaps so that people would read the part straight through in one sitting). Many nay-sayers may critique Rowling for creating drama with an event that was not taking place for the first time but here is a difference. Howard made a quick recovery last time. Now he has regained consciousness but is still at the hospital in critical condition. He has not said a word about Shirley running out with the needle. Rowling seems to imply that the surgery has made Howard unable to sexually perform so Shirley is no longer angry over the affair, but I wish she would be more clear on this.

Samantha & Miles‘ storyline ends in a similar way. The tragedy of Howard’s second heart attack has brought Miles and Samantha back together as well. Rowling wrote in her first novel, “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them“. It’s clear this is her personal philosophy (see Andrew’s friendship with Gaia and Sukhvinder), but I’m not sure I entirely believe it myself. I could see a temporary pact being made during a tragedy, but I believe it would generally end once the tragedy has finished. It is ridiculous to me that merely the shared experience and concern would cause Samantha to suddenly love Miles to the point that she “had made love the previous night, and she had not pretended that he was anybody else“. However, I know that Samantha did have love for Miles at first, and it was a good move for Rowling to have her say earlier she wasn’t sure whether she loved him or not (although this feels like an editor’s trick, given all the feelings we’ve seen of hers before; the feeling from her should have been incorporated then), so the philosophy isn’t completely implausible in how it plays out here, though I have strong issues with it.

But another very interesting part of Samantha’s personal storyline is that the tragedy of Robbie’s death also changed Samantha in another, far more plausible way. After seeing what all happened as a result of Terri’s drug problems and a feeling of personal guilt over not saving Robbie and thus Krystal as well, she decides to join the council to try to prevent the addiction clinic from being closed. This change is very real to me and I like it, particularly because it adds a large touch of happiness to this very sad ending, which the revelation that Dr. Jawanda has gone through with her resignation does, as well, as it means Colin will be co-opted onto the council.

Andrew & Gaia‘s storyline ends happily, too, for both of them. Gaia is moving back to London as she wanted Andrew is moving to Reading and will be able to see Gaia when she visits, and perhaps this relationship will form though the feelings prior revealed that Gaia has of Andrew (“She was worth much more than Fats Wall, she knew that. If it had even been Andy Price, she would have felt better about it.”) make this somewhat unlikely. But there is hope for him, unlike

Gavin, whose storyline ends in humiliating failure, as he has burned every bridge he had, and has been left with no one, making a vain attempt to make amends with Kay only to be hung up on scornfully.

Fats‘ storyline ends merely with him finally having seemingly given up on his authentic lifestyle. Tessa attempts to take him to Krystal and Robbie’s funeral to further cure this, but Colin is angry at her over the things she revealed to Fats on the ride home (Rowling, annoyingly enough, felt it necessary to have Tessa explain the reasons for her talk with Fats), so she goes simply with Andrew. But he is allowed the further blow of guilt when he looks out the window briefly as the funeral hearse passes by with the coffins out in front to see.

Another shocking twist comes as a result of Fats’ guilt. He confessed to his parents about having written the post about Colin, then proceeded to take credit for all the other posts, in an effort to get himself punished as severely as possible, as he felt he deserved.

Sukhvinder‘s storyline ends with her having seemingly gotten over her depression, which her parents have now realized (being doctors, it stands to reason they recognize cutting scars). It bothers me to realize that Rowling appears to have forgotten Sukhvinder’s desire to drown as she describes Sukhvinder as having been afraid in the water and wondering how long she would have been able to live. But maybe this is just another case of not stating it. She may have been implying that Sukhvinder was afraid of  death in the reality despite her abstract yearning of it, a feeling I know to be perfectly real and a great insight into people, and it would seem that the near drowning was the moment that made her fully realize it. It may be Rowling realizes the insights I do not and is not stating them so the audience and the critics can read them themselves, I’m not sure.

But the storyline resolution that runs through every other one in this section, the one that the book openly closes with, is that of the Weedons. When we are in Shirley’s perspective, she has been ranting about Krystal and Fats, that they caused Howard’s condition to worsen by delaying the paramedics by calling out two ambulances and creating confusion, and to be honest, she has a point. She and Maureen gossip about the imminent funeral.

Then when the story changes to Andrew (this part is divided into sections, but they are not numbered, merely marked by spaces, perhaps so that people would read it in one sitting, which worked in my case), Gaia is planning to go to the funeral and Andrew says he will be attending as well when he hears she is going, then we get a memory of Krystal from him. Then he is driven by Tessa to pick up Fats for the funeral, but as said previously they end up going without him.

Then the POV switches to Samantha, who sees them through the window and mistakes Andrew for Fats and is shocked and then quickly turns away when she realizes her mistake out of embarrassment over “the kissing incident”. We get her reflecting on whether she should go to the funeral (she decides no) and remembering Krystal.

The book closes after Kay and Gaia leave for the funeral, at the actual funeral which is described in vivid detail, and we are told of how Sukhvinder basically made all the arrangement. The book is deeply moving (in a happy way) in Sukhvinder’s devotion, and (in a very sad way) when we learn how Terri has reacted to losing both her children practically within an instant. She has lost all energy and vitality and fallen into a deep state of depression. We are told that “Sukhvinder had been frightened of her… it was like talking to a corpse“, and  at the funeral she “…seemed scarcely aware of where she was“. (The final sentence of the book is “Her family half carried Terri Weedon back down the royal blue carpet, and the congregation averted its eyes“.)

Then we are given the feelings of the characters gathered there, and then the POV stays with Sukhvinder, who first dwells on how the vicar is refusing to speak about who Krystal was, and then we are given another memory of her, this time from Sukhvinder. Krystal Weedon’s legacy is deeply rooted into this entire part, what people think of her and the person she was. What people think of her and how they remember her is the main theme that runs through the final part.

The final chapter does a very good job portraying the characters, and resolving their plots, and the characters’ plots were what this novel were what this book was all about, nothing more. This novel is basically “a story about nothing”. To describe what the story is actually about would be impossible, because it would mean describing all the characters’ plots and how intricately and cleverly they are intertwined.

Rowling stated that she wrote it for herself planning never to publish it, and this is easy to see. She clearly came up with these people and then she got caught up in their lives. It annoys me that the publishers have advertised this as a very high-brow book, when really it is just a silly comedy in the end, nothing more than a glimpse into life in this small town. The book is life in its essence, just a slice of life in this small town. Its ending continues this theme well, too: for some, the ending is happy. For others, it is sad. For Andrew, it is bittersweet. Rowling makes it clear to us both that he may never “get” Gaia and that Simon’s abuse has not ceased and that Andrew refuses to report it when given the chance. (All is mutable!)

This is not to say that it is a bad novel, though perhaps only due to Rowling’s motivations about writing it. But I will not say whether I think this book is good or bad. Whether you like this book or not ultimately does not prove that the book is either good or bad, but succeeds stupendously at proving the kind of person you are.  Any type of the typical critical review which aims to say whether the book is good or bad and such opinions presented by people in one’s life is entirely irrelevant and should be ignored.

Rowling does a good job portraying the morays of a small town in this part most notably but in the entire book, how the plot becomes town lore, how everyone in the “lore” develops a reputation from the people in the town, which, as I have said before, was also portrayed very well in the opening chapter of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Small towns and their ways seem to be a thing that Rowling is obsessed with, just like death.

There is significantly less death in this book than I expected and that critics had strongly implied there would be. Yet it is a theme deeply infused into the novel. Rowling was right that “the casual vacancy” would be the perfect title for the book, for it symbolizes death itself in many cases (Barry, Robbie, and Krystal’s).

But I can see the motivation behind naming her book “Consequences” as she had originally intended to, although they are less obvious than the reasons behind the final title. The book is largely centered around consequences:

. Simon loses his job and decides to drop out of the election in consequence of his criminal actions and abuse of his son. Sadly he gains a new job and does not receive legal consequences for his abuse. Rowling certainly does not claim life is perfect.

. All of the posts are of course in consequence to their subject’s behavior, but only Simon and Howard’s have any real effect.

. Gavin’s life is ruined in consequence to him being dishonest with Kay and then through being honest with Mary. And he is humiliated in consequence to attempting to reconcile with Kay.

. Dr. Jawanda is suspended from work in consequence of her outburst at Howard in the council meeting.

. Andrew too receives negative consequences for writing the post, in his beating by Simon and his brief sadness over leaving Pagford but also positive in his satisfaction over Simon losing his job and dropping out of the election.

. Sukhvinder cuts her wrists in consequence of Fats and her mother. Her parents become kind to her in consequence of discovering her cutting. The community views her as a heroine in consequence of her attempt to save Robbie.

. Howard’s affair is revealed in consequence to Patricia mentioning it to Andrew, who in consequence writes the post, also in consequence to Simon believing Howard wrote the post mocking him.

. The consequence of Howard’s unhealthy eating is that he has two heart attacks and closes the book in the hospital in critical condition.

. The consequence of Howard’s affair is that Shirley becomes resentful and tries to kill him. Another consequence of his heart attack is that he becomes unable to perform sexually and Shirley worries about him dying, thus she dwells no more on the affair.

. Same goes for Miles and Samantha for the latter.

. And the consequence of Fats’ lifestyle is obvious. His and Krystal’s irresponsibility caused a three-and-a-half-year-old child to die. And the consequences of Gavin, Samantha, and Shirley ignoring him are also obvious.

I could go on and on, but the justification has been proven, and really, when you think about it, all novels are about consequences. You can’t write a book without them!

And the symmetry of the novel is almost poetic. The most obvious is that the song “Umbrella”  is played at both Barry’s funeral and Krystal’s, and that Krystal does not attend Barry’s funeral and the children of Barry do not attend Krystal’s (as Mary disliked Krystal and dislikes that her grave will be near Barry’s). But there is more than that. The novel begins with a casual vacancy in a literal sense, and ends with a casual vacancy in a literal sense (though not in the final chapter). It also begins with a casual vacancy in the legal sense and ends with a casual vacancy in the legal sense, in the form of Dr. Jawanda’s resignation from the Parish Council.

It will be interesting to see what place this book has in history. Will it, in time, be remembered as a classic, genius work of literature, or as a mistake, an ungodly blemish on an otherwise dignified career? (Of course, the answer will be zilch if the Mayans’ forecast comes true at midnight!) And will my blog be discovered again? What shall become of it in history?

With these words, this blog is complete. To Daniel and any Internet dwellers lurking out in the darkness who dare not speak their name, I bid you farewell. I hope you enjoyed taking this trip with me.

Goodbye.

Yes, we have reached the penultimate chapter, so to speak. I’m actually afraid to proceed, because we are so close to the end and everything is happening. I know that this part is likely going to be more of the same: unbridled excitement and madness. And I don’t want to see poor Terri fall apart. Or Krystal, for that matter. I don’t know how the prospect of reading about Howard dying makes me feel. I mean, I know he was a lying, cheating, selfish, power-hungry, all-around disgusting human being, but somehow I grew attached to him, I don’t know.

But I have to be professional. I have to finish this. So I will take a deep breath. And onward we go!

PART SIX

This part has the strangest, most confusing opening Local Council Administration excerpt in the entire book, hands down.

Weaknesses of Voluntary Bodies

22.23 …The main weaknesses of such bodies are that they are hard to launch, liable to disintegrate…

It had me completely baffled at first, so I googled “voluntary bodies” and while I couldn’t find an exact definition I have ascertained that it is a group established by a private minority of people, or something similar. So it likely refers to the social services group set up to help Robbie, but it sounds like a clever double-meaning, because the first thing it brings to mind is Sukhvinder jumping off the bridge.

I

Many, many times had Colin Wall imagined the police coming to his door. They arrived, at last, at dusk on Sunday evening: a woman and a man, not to arrest Colin, but to look for his son.

Rowling, you do not disappoint.

Surprisingly, Colin is the most calm about the situation. As Rowling puts it, “Colin had rehearsed for calamity all his life. He was ready.” It’s brilliant, really.

Isolated above the little town, no news of the calamities had yet reached Hilltop House. Andrew’s mobile rang in the kitchen.
“‘Lo,” he said, his mouth full of toast.
“Andy, it’s Tessa Wall. Is Stu with you?”
“No,” he said. “Sorry.”
But he was not at all sorry that Fats was not with him.

It shocked me how bad things have gotten between them. It’s very strange, considering they grew up friends and Fats admitted to himself that Andrew was the person he was closest with and wouldn’t be able to survive without him. But that seems to be his motivation for treating Andrew coldly: resentment for leaving him.

Rowling does a great job portraying Andrew’s feelings as he realizes where Fats is and that he needs to reveal it to Tessa: The Cubby Hole.

Seemingly, there isn’t much to the rest of this section. Tessa drives Andrew to the Cubby Hole, Andrew goes in and finds Fats, tells him that Robbie has died and calls to Tessa to tell her that he found him. But unlike Water for Elephants, where even during the climax when people were dying, I never felt the danger and anxiety because Gruen wrote it all in her typical bland lifeless style, and viewed the characters purely from the outside, here the panic, anxiety, and excitement in the realization that the book has reached its climax bleed through every sentence of the section and every character, and we feel it with them. It’s actually rather cinematic, though, in that we don’t need to know their feelings. We can practically see it in their every action, their every word. Indeed, the section plays out like a film at this point. We can see every bit of it in our mind’s eye.

II

The section opens with Sukhvinder at the house of the dog-walker who saved her. Her parents arrive, Dr. Jawanda so angry that she actually knocks over a table and smashes an ornament in the house, seemingly without thinking!

And again I spoke too soon in critiquing Rowling:

At the hospital, they made her undress again, but this time her mother was with her in the curtained cubicle, and she realized her mistake too late when she saw the expression of horror on Parminder’s face.
“My God,” she said, grabbing Sukhvinder’s forearm. “My God. What have you done to yourself?”
Sukhvinder had no words, so she allowed herself to subside into tears and uncontrollable shaking, and Vikram shouted at everyone, including Parminder, to leave her alone, but also to damn well hurry up, and that her cut needed cleaning and she needed stitches and sedatives and X-rays…

It seems that they believe that they are cuts from objects in the river, though.

In a brilliant touch, Vikram’s incredulous disgust at Miles for asking Dr. Jawanda to help Howard switches to Miles’ incredulous disgust at Dr. Jawanda for refusing to help Howard. So often in life people do believe the exact opposite things and state differing opinions as if they were cold fact that no one could dispute.

And the scene remains with them in the waiting room. Shirley’s emotions and worries are portrayed very well. The section is just full of the same character details and little details as the rest of the book, but I have to make a strong criticism about one thing: For most of the book, the characters react exactly how they would expect them to and their thoughts are exactly as you would expect them to, and this is the case for Shirley. But this is not the case for Sukhvinder. I wrote about how I thought that given her fantasies about drowning, Sukhvinder was jumping into the river believing she would die but in the way she wanted to and knowing that people would regard her as a heroine who died to save a young boy or die trying so it would be a dream come true for her. But Rowling never gave us those feelings from her. And if she only had, then the crushing sadness of the fact that absolutely no good was accomplished (when Sukhvinder is saved and Robbie is not) would be all the more apparent. It strongly disappoints me that this is not included, because it would have made the book so much more stronger. All the same, I cannot help but be impressed at how Rowling manipulates the audience with her writing: in every sentence, we feel the sadness and blunt acceptance and sheer finality that the panic and anxiety of the last section has given way to.

And she closes with the most dark, nihilistic, depressing writing I’ve ever seen, in which we are given a look at exactly who each of us really are: just a young body in a cupboard dead, just an old body being cut open on the operating table, alive, but what does it mean when the world is so fickle and flimsy as that?

In the theater upstairs, Howard Mollison’s body overflowed the edges of the operating table. His chest was wide open, revealing the ruins of Vikram Jawanda’s handiwork. Nineteen people labored to repair the damage, while the machines to which Howard was connected made soft implacable noises, confirming that he continued to live.
And far below, in the bowels of the hospital, Robbie Weedon’s body lay frozen and white in the morgue. Nobody had accompanied him to the hospital, and nobody had visited him in his metal drawer.

Alfred Hitchcock said, “I enjoy playing my audience like a piano”. Rowling is an absolute master at this.

III

Now the scene is with Tessa driving Fats home. Both of these characters’ emotions are depicted perfectly. This is the most emotional, subtle, best-written scene in the entire book. Fats is getting the consequences for his so-called “authentic” actions now. He wanted to go out and have underage sex with a girl and be cool, and now he has to deal with the agonizing guilt that he caused a 3-year-old boy to die because of that.

“So you ran away,” said Tessa coldly, over his tears.
She had prayed that she would find him alive, but her strongest emotion was disgust. His tears did not soften her. She was used to men’s tears. Part of her was ashamed that he had not, after all, thrown himself into the river.
“Krystal told the police that you and she were in the bushes. You just left him to his own devices, did you?”
Fats was speechless. He could not believe her cruelty. Did she not understand the desolation roaring inside him, the horror, the sense of contagion?

Readers may find her to be unbelievably cruel, and perhaps she is. But as she tells Fats the story of his birth the attentive reader realizes (once they have gotten over the more audience reactions to the revelations that he may be a product of incest or rape and that Colin attempted suicide shortly after they adopted Fats because he thought he had killed him) what emotions she is going through, how disillusioned and nihilistic she has become. She is disappointed with herself because she wanted so desperately to raise Fats and is deeply disappointed with how he turned out. She considers leaving him at the Fields to embrace his new life as a parent and to apologize to Krystal, but thinks over all her decisions in life and decides they’ve all been bad ones, Fats is a lost cause, so she just decides to drive him home.

Rowling doesn’t spell out these things. They’re left for the clever reader to discern and I enjoyed and appreciated that.

IV

Very noticeably, all throughout the three previous sections, we were never given the slightest hint as to what had happened to Krystal after Robbie’s death. This section answers that question immediately.

The police had picked up Krystal Weedon at last as she ran hopelessly along the riverbank on the very edge of Pagford, still calling her brother in a cracked voice. … Krystal had not noticed Fats melting away into the trees; he did not exist to her anymore.

Very heart-rending. And the story stays with her as she is taken home by the police. Terri’s reaction to the police at her house and Robbie not being with Krystal is in-character and the whole thing is portrayed well.

But then the scene randomly changes to Kay and Gaia without even any random break. Compared to what else is happening in the story, their problems are of very little consequence and it’s near impossible to care at all. The only thing of note is Gaia’s utter selfishness and childishness, but even if they move there’s only one chapter left and their moving is nothing compared to what has happened in the story at this point. So it was a good move by Rowling to have the Weedons’ plot come in (via Tessa’s call, meaning the story isn’t in chronological order at this point).

And then she switches the scene back to the Weedons.

Neighbors were coming out onto their doorsteps, a fascinated audience to Terri’s meltdown. Somehow the cause of it was transmitted through the watchers, from Terri’s incoherent shouts and the attitudes of the ominous police.
“The boy’s dead,” they told each other. Nobody stepped forward to comfort or calm. Terri Weedon had no friends.

This would be very effective writing to illustrate how Terri has isolated herself in her mistrust for everyone, but it isn’t actually true. She did trust Obbo and Obbo is her friend at least in her mind and he would likely fill that role if he were there, so it really just goes to demonstrate her horrible judgment.

We then (with absolutely no warning at all) switch to Kay and Gaia getting in the car to go to the Weedons’ to see what they can do. This only lasts two paragraphs, and then the scene changes to a 3rd-person perspective of Krystal.

But by the time they had reached the bypass, Krystal had found what she was looking for: a bag of heroin concealed in the airing cupboard; the second of two that Obbo had given Terri in payment for Tessa Wall’s watch. She took it, with Terri’s works, into the bathroom, the only room that had a lock on the door.

At first it seems that Krystal is going to give the drugs to the police out of anger and depression because they caused her to leave with Robbie, but then it’s clear she’s using it herself.

Robbie was dead, and it was her fault. In trying to save him, she had killed him.

It’s true, but I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing that Rowling directly and acknowledges it. I know what I said about not acknowledging the tragedy of Sukhvinder, but actually seeing her do that with Krystal makes me wonder. On one hand, it would seem that it was just another missed opportunity at drama if she acted like it was not intentional and she did not notice, but seeing here we think that maybe she should have left the audience to notice it and say it themselves. But people could accuse them of over-analyzing and seeing things into it that she didn’t intend, so it really is a difficult dilemma for Rowling, and it leads me to believe that she did recognize the observations I made about Sukhvinder’s fate and this was her way of compromising. But maybe I’m just overthinking everything, I don’t know.

But back to the story. Krystal injects the heroin, and right up until the final sentence of the chapter it seems like this is just showing Krystal tragically turning to drugs, thus entering the world of depression and madness that her mother inhabits, because of the ultimate tragedy which Rowling has just acknowledged: In trying to prevent Robbie from being harmed and rescuing him from Terri’s world, she caused his death. So now it would seem she has given up, much like Tessa.

But then one reads the final sentence and realizes that it was entirely different, that we didn’t understand what was actually going on. She had turned to the heroin out of depression over the ultimate tragedy, but her solution was more extreme:

By the time Kay and Gaia arrived, and the police decided to force their way in, Krystal Weedon had achieved her only ambition: she had joined her brother where nobody could part them.

It was to escape the world of depression and madness that her mother inhabits, and she succeeded. And in doing so, she created yet another casual vacancy in this topsy-turvy, crazed rollercoaster we call life.

(One chapter left. I must be strong.)

Well, I have only three parts left now. Shamefully I’ve found myself putting this off to delay finishing it, but no longer. So, without further hesitation, we will begin

PART FIVE

The opening “Local Council Administration” excerpt reads (I feel sorry for Rowling having to actually purchase a copy of this book and skim through it to find suitable opening excerpts) “Privilege”: “A person who has made a defamatory statement may claim privilege for it if he can show that he made it out without malice and in pursuit of a public duty.”

I can’t tell you how excited I was on reading that. Not only does it validate all my claims and annoyances with people ignoring this in the book, but the book itself is finally acknowledging this, and it means that the authors of the posts may be publicly revealed in this chapter. Which will really just make it more exciting. After all, think of all the game-changers and cliffhangers the previous part left us. Andrew is moving away, Krystal is going to get pregnant with Fats’s child, Kay has been relieved of duty as the Weedons’ social worker, Samantha’s shop is closing down, Gaia is planning on moving out, Gavin has ended his relationship with Kay and is going to pursue a relationship with Mary, and who will win the election, the results of which determine the closing of the addiction center and thus Terri’s newfound sobriety and whether or not the Fields shall be made a part of Yarvil?

I

NOW we get a proper, compelling opening. It’s really a very touching overview of Terri’s life and her experience with loss. I like that Rowling gives these backstories for her characters so that none of these seem like cardboard cut-outs or simplistic, which is something that it seems Rowling has always done her best to avoid.

And I think Terri’s feelings about Kay are portrayed very well, how she liked her but refuses to admit it even to herself.

I’m also glad Rowling gave us interactions between Terri and the original social worker, Mattie, so that she wouldn’t be just a pointless name. She tells Terri that the clinic will almost certainly be closed. But thankfully Terri has another option.

“…obviously, it will be different, but you can get your methadone from your GP instead,” said Mattie. She flipped over pages in the distended file that was the state’s record of Terri’s life. “You’re registered with Dr. Jawanda in Pagford, right? Pagford… why are you going all the way out there?”

We then get a scene with Krystal and Terri and their horrible, dysfunctional relationship. But both characters are very real. It annoys Terri that Krystal is playing the grown-up, but she is  the grown-up. Terri is barely taking anything seriously focusing on her immature emotions rather than what needs to be done, and Krystal knows this and is frustrated by it. So the clash between them is very realistic.

Krystal had been angry for days. The thing that Krystal had said about Obbo….
(“She said what?” he had laughed, incredulously, when they had met in the street, and Terri had muttered something about Krystal being upset.)
…he wouldn’t have done it. He couldn’t have.

I honestly thought that she would come around to believing Krystal eventually, and this aggravates me, particularly the lack of consequences of the rape, at least until Krystal becomes pregnant which can’t be much longer.

But I like that Rowling gives an overview of Terri’s relationship with Obbo to explain why she trusts him but does not trust all the people she really should.

In a rage, because they were low on food, and she was out of cigarettes, and Robbie was whining for his sister, she stormed into her daughter’s room and kicked her clothes around, searching for money or the odd, overlooked fag. Something clattered as she threw aside Krystal’s crumpled old rowing kit, and she saw the little plastic jewelry box, upended, with the rowing medal that Krystal had won, and Tessa Wall’s watch lying beneath it.

It’s clear at this point that Tessa’s watch is going to be very important. Believing that Nana Cath gave it to Krystal and angry at her daughter for keeping it a secret, Terri sells the watch to Obbo for twenty dollars. And what in the world is going to happen next with it? I really can’t imagine. And I’m glad Terri has the will-power to tell Obbo not to bring over drugs, but the stubborn refusal to go to Pagford which closes this section makes it clear that a lot does depend on the clinic staying open. Terri, Obbo, and Mattie are certain it will be closed, but it all depends on who wins the election and I think that’s what we’ll find out in the next section.

II

“Brace yourself,” teased Howard Mollison at midday on Saturday. “Mum’s about to post the results on the website. Want to wait and see it made public or shall I tell you now?”
Miles turned away instinctively from Samantha, who was sitting opposite him at the island in the middle of the kitchen. They were having a last coffee before she and Libby set off for the station and the concert in London. With the handset pressed tightly to his ear, he said, “Go on.”
“You won. Comfortably. Pretty much two to one over Wall.”

Yep, that’s it. No real build-up. We are just abruptly thrown into a scene with the Mollisons, and then we are given the results of the election. A lot of people might like Rowling’s style in this, but it honestly frustrates me. I would like build-up and anticipation for these things. I mean, bang, the addiction clinic is going to be shut down. Terri is going to lose her sobriety and lose Robbie. The Fields will be given to Yarvil. All that in just a matter of seconds. No build-up. And it’s disappointing to me that we never got any debates and speeches between Colin and Miles. I had anticipated that we would, and was looking forward to it, but they didn’t do campaigning in person. Also, it disappoints me how the results are just as un-surprising as the real life election results. (Did anyone not know three years away that Obama would win?) The Mollisons are a respectable family who have a history in politics, and Colin is just a weird, creepy vice principal.

Still, Rowling does a good job writing this scene and the details, as usually.

But then the story abruptly switches to Samantha. She’s about to go to the concert with Libby and she’s excited, but then a wrench is thrown into her plans. Libby comes in and gives Samantha the phone, saying her friend’s mother wants to talk to her.

This really is a comedy, I can tell now, and it’s very fun to read how the friend’s mother takes away every reason in Samantha’s alibi for going, and as usual the conversation feels real.

There was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide.

For crying out loud, her fears are only in her own mind. There’s no harm in telling her you wanted to see the band because you’ve gotten to like it yourself. Just look at all the “Twilight Mothers”.

But… Miles won the election. Yet there are two more parts and thirteen sections left in this part. This is the point where I have to realize the book wasn’t about the election at all. It was just about these people’s lives, and there are still a lot of unresolved plotlines relating to these characters and exciting things that have to happen in their lives before the book can end. This book was clearly building up to a resolution of the characters’ problems, not the election. Where do we go from here?

III

To Gavin, whose fate is still undetermined. Does Mary share his feelings? Will she be willing to start a relationship with him? It’s hard to tell. The text states that “she had been oddly flustered when he had turned up“, but that might have just been because she wasn’t expecting to see him. Who knows? Gavin actually takes it as a genuine sign that she has feelings for him. (Note: I originally did not know what “the Smithy” is, but upon making a Google search, I have concluded that it is a name for Gavin’s house.)

But then the story abruptly switches to Andrew. He hasn’t left for Reading just yet, and he’s getting ready to serve at Howard’s birthday party. I like that Rowling gave us insight into his feelings about writing the post now, as I wasn’t sure about them:

Andrew’s feelings about what he had done to his father changed almost hourly. Sometimes the guilt would bear down on him, tainting everything, but then it would melt away, leaving him glorying in his secret triumph. Tonight, the thought of it gave extra heat to the excitement burning beneath Andrew’s thin white shirt, an additional tingle to the gooseflesh caused by the rush of evening air as he sped, on Simon’s racing bike, down the hill into town.

His feelings upon learning of Gaia’s break-up with Marco surprised me. I had forgotten that Gaia’s father lived in Reading, so naturally his reaction was the exact opposite of what I expected.

This section is extremely long. The scene describing Howard’s party just goes on and on for a full ten pages, and I felt like Rowling was deliberately trying to foil people’s attempts to review her book like this. So I’ll just summarize it:

  1. As usual, there are a lot of character details. As usual, Rowling does a very good job portraying the way the characters interact. As usual, it feels like it’s naturally playing out in front of us.
  2. We meet Howard and Shirley’s daughter, Patricia. This one surprised me. I thought she would remain an unseen character. But no. The reason she is a black sheep in the family is that she is a lesbian. And one who is very resentful of her parents’ homophobia. She is a very well realized character, too.
  3. Furthering of Gavin’s relationship plot. Although he tries to keep it a secret, Gaia exposes him in front of Shirley, so everyone will know by tomorrow. He also learns that Mary is considering leaving for Liverpool. Gavin will need to reveal his love quickly. I hope he has the courage to and does it right. (I think Rowling chose Howard’s favorite song deliberately in search of lyrics that she could find lyrics that reflected Gavin’s inner thoughts.)
  4. Samantha’s flagrant sexual attraction to Andrew, and awkward conversation with him. Forget Colin, he’s only a mental pedophile.

The party scene basically ends with Andrew, Gaia, and Sukhvinder drunk in the kitchen after sneaking off and drinking vodka, because it sticks with their storyline from that point on. Bizarrely enough Fats shows up… through the window. ?????????? He and Fats go outside to smoke, where bizarrely enough, Patricia gives them cigarettes and lights them for them. ????????????

I like the insight we get into Fats that really makes him a more likable character. When Gaia confronts him over bullying Sukhvinder, he does not mock her or insult her but instead tells her “I never said there was anything wrong with [being a lesbian]. It’s only jokes”.

“Wonder what the Ghost’ll say next?” Fats asked, with a sidelong glance at Andrew.
“Probably stop now the election’s over,” muttered Andrew.
“Oh, I dunno,” said Fats. “If there’s stuff old Barry’s Ghost is still pissed off about….”
He knew that he was making Andrew anxious and he was glad of it. Andrew was spending all his time at his poxy job these days and he would soon be moving. Fats did not owe Andrew anything. True authenticity could not exist alongside guilt and obligation.

He’s making me anxious, too. I want Fats’ post attacking Colin to be the end. The election is over, and the council posts storyline has run its course. (And refer to my original definition of “authenticity”: “Be an asshole and do whatever the fuck you want.”)

But then Rowling throws us a shocker out of nowhere:

“Old Maureen and my father singing along together. Arm in arm.” Patricia took a final fierce drag on her cigarette and threw the end down, grinding it beneath her heel. “I walked in on her blowing him when I was twelve,” she said. “And he gave me a fiver not to tell my mother.”

WHAT WHAT WHAT? This this changes the way I look at both Howard and his relationship with both Maureen and Shirley completely and she just throws it at us just like that! I don’t know how much more of this I can take.

He could not see where she was at first: then he spotted them. Gaia and Fats were locked together ten yards away from the door, leaning up against the railings, bodies pressed tight against each other, tongues working in each other’s mouths.

NO NO WHAT THE YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING!!!!!!

[Samantha's] mouth was chapped and warm, and her breasts were huge, pressed against [Andrew's] chest; her back was as broad as his-
“What the fuck?”

What the fuck?

Andrew was slumped against the draining board and Samantha was being dragged out of the kitchen by a big man with short graying hair.

This this this is just too much this is all so insane. Oh my god oh my so many things were just resolved and changed in just a fraction of a second before we have time to figure out what’s happening. After all that time Gaia ended up with Fats instead of Andrew, Samantha is a pedophile and Miles caught her in the act, and Howard had and is probably having an affair with Maureen. It’s like Rowling is playing a game: “What’s the most insane, shocking thing I’ll throw at them next?” WHAT’S THE MOST INSANE, SHOCKING THING SHE’LL THROW AT US NEXT?!!!!! I’m sorry I ever doubted the critics who said this was “endlessly surprising”. Rowling hasn’t lost her touch. She isn’t going soft with her age. But I wish she had. I mean, I do like it, but after I’ve had some time to relax and appreciate it.

I love how Andrew’s tired, drunken, confused thought process is portrayed. He’s in the same state of shock as the readers, only much, much worse, since it’s actually really happening to him. It really is convincing, and even the twists, shocking as they are, aren’t unbelievable.

And again I notice that as he goes up the hill and enters the kitchen and finds Simon there unable to sleep, we feel his emotions. We don’t need it to be stated how Andrew feels and the way things feel, because it’s all portrayed convincingly enough that we feel the same way.

For as much as people complained about how the book being depressing, this section ends in a very nice, happy way:
Shivering slightly, feeling old and shell-shocked, and immensely guilty, Andrew wanted to give his father something to make up for what he had done. It was time to redress balances and claim Simon as an ally. They were a family. They had to move together. Perhaps it could be better, somewhere else.
“I’ve got something for you,” he said. “Come through here. Found out how to do it at school…”
And he led the way to the computer.

I’d complain about not wanting another post but I can’t help but be overcome by the sheer joy of it. Ahhhhh.

IV

And the joy actually carries into the next section, too. It really is beautiful writing, and I read it in bed early in the morning just after I woke up*, which accentuated its quality to me.

The narrative goes from character-to-character, showing where they are and what they are doing: Miles doesn’t know what to think about finding his wife embracing a sixteen-year-old and what to do, while Colin is just a poor victim of his OCD, believing he killed Barry for no discernible reason. All are firmly in-character, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it shows a bit of where the characters are going. It ends with Dr. Jawanda, who the narrative remains with for the rest of the section. She is actually planning to resign the council, and I hope she doesn’t, because that would constitute another casual vacancy and I’m not ready for another election.

The narrative provides a great deal of insight into her, and makes her very sympathetic. Then there is a thankfully uninterrupted conversation between her and Sukhvinder where Sukhvinder is trying to get out of going to work, and surprisingly, given her earlier anger at her wanting a job, forces her to go because at this point she doesn’t want the Mollisons to have anything else to criticize the Jawandas for.

A lot of readers may hate Dr. Jawanda for her treatment of Sukhvinder, but this section does a lot to humanize her and I like how it closes with her actually realizing her faults as a parent and wanting to change them.

*I read II in a grocery store, from a copy on the shelf. It was right there, so why not kill two birds with one stone?

IV

And the joy actually carries into the next section, too. It really is beautiful writing, and I read it in bed early in the morning just after I woke up, which accentuated its quality to me.

The narrative goes from character-to-character, showing where they are and what they are doing: Miles doesn’t know what to think about finding his wife embracing a sixteen-year-old and what to do, while Colin is just a poor victim of his OCD, believing he killed Barry for no discernible reason. All are firmly in-character, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it shows a bit of where the characters are going. It ends with Dr. Jawanda, who the narrative remains with for the rest of the section. She is actually planning to resign the council, and I hope she doesn’t, because that would constitute another casual vacancy and I’m not ready for another election.

The narrative provides a great deal of insight into her, and makes her very sympathetic. Then there is a thankfully uninterrupted conversation between her and Sukhvinder where Sukhvinder is trying to get out of going to work, and surprisingly, given her earlier anger at her wanting a job, forces her to go because at this point she doesn’t want the Mollisons to have anything else to criticize the Jawandas for.

A lot of readers may hate Dr. Jawanda for her treatment of Sukhvinder, but this section does a lot to humanize her and I like how it closes with her actually realizing her faults as a parent and wanting to change them.

After Sukhvinder walked back to the house Parminder felt guilty. She almost called her daughter back, but instead she made a mental note that she must try and find time to sit down with her and talk to her without arguing.

V

Now we are back with Krystal coming home from her friend’s house.

A lot of authors only include the absolute essentials in writing. They just write the plot and describe the events as they unfold. Rowling is not one of those authors — there are so many subtle details that most people wouldn’t even think about that Rowling includes in this section. In fact, that’s really all the section is until Krystal gets home. And I like it because they come before the scene that we become invested in, and thus we have nothing to distract us from that scene.

Then it occurred to her that Robbie was not there. She pounded up the stairs, shouting for him.
“‘M’ere,” she heard him say, from behind her own closed bedroom door.
When she shouldered it open, she saw Robbie standing there, naked. Behind him, scratching his bare chest, lying on her own mattress, was Obbo.
“All righ’, Krys?” he said, grinning.

OH MY GOD WHAT THE FUCK THIS IS INSANE Obbo is absolute scum. Did he actually rape Robbie? Is he bisexual? Of course Krystal is too terrified of Obbo now to say a word to him so she just grabs Robbie and goes downstairs. And things just get worse. She discovers that Obbo has given bags of hashish to Terri — and Krystal knows her mother could be sent to prison for having them. (Although you’d think she would be sent to prison for using the other drugs, too. I suppose if she were caught with them Terri would get a much shorter sentence, in the local jail.)

It becomes very clear at this point that Krystal is really the only sane, responsible person in her world. Barry is dead, Nana Cath is dead, Kay is gone, and poor Krystal has to deal with the insanity that is her life and try to stop the worst from coming to the worst, but it’s becoming impossible for her to succeed. To be honest, I don’t think Terri losing Robbie is such a bad thing at this point. Getting out of this environment is honestly the best thing for him, and I hope the novel ends with Krystal somehow managing to adopt him or at least with him in a good home. But I’m not sure that this novel will have a happy ending. There’s just no predicting Rowling, though.

VI

The story now goes to Shirley. The section feels like a rerun at first, character details, Shirley going to the computer out of habit, and we get an utterly gratuitous flashback to Howard and Shirley realizing Patricia had left, but at least it doesn’t interrupt any scene between the characters that we are meant to be invested in.

But then the monotony comes to an abrupt end as Shirley discovers the new Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother post father and son Price have uploaded onto the website:

Howard Mollison, First Citizen of Pagford, and long-standing resident Maureen Lowe have been more than business partners for many years. It is common knowledge that Maureen holds regular tastings of Howard’s finest salami. The only person who appears not to be in on the secret is Shirley, Howard’s wife.

I know I said so much about how I wanted the posts to end with the attack on Colin, but this feels like the right one to end with. A return to the first post, the original author apologizing for the first post by writing it with the subject of the first post.

And until this moment Shirley believed up until this moment that “the_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother” was on her side, attacking anti-Fielders. She had to realize eventually that the posts aren’t political, they’re just designed to attack individuals, regardless of who they are. And what a crushing blow to have your best friend stab you in the back like that. Just perfect.

Rowling does a great job portraying Shirley’s reaction. The prose is basically her erratic thoughts.

Surprisingly she runs and wakes up Howard to tell him.

“What?” he said, his face shielded.
“You and Maureen, having an affair.”
“Where’s he get that from?”
No denial, no outrage, no scathing laughter. Merely a cautious request for a source.
Ever afterwards, Shirley would remember this moment as a death; a life truly ended.

This is humiliating for me in retrospect, considering how many times I said how Howard and Shirley’s was the only perfect relationship in the book. And that’s one complaint I do make, that it seems like Rowling noticed their relationship had been perfect for most of the book, so decided to quickly remedy that by adding the affair storyline when she was all but through with the book. I think it would be proper to have just one happy couple, one flawless marriage, especially since it’s one that’s clearly existed for decades.

But I have to admit Rowling mainly does a good job depicting Shirley’s reaction. Going to tell Howard wouldn’t be my first response, but considering she trusted him so deeply that she doubted the post, it makes sense. I’m not sure about Howard’s response, though; you’d think he would try to act a little more shocked and outraged.

VII

We open with Krystal at a bus stop with Robbie.

She was not sure she had enough money for the fare, but she was determined to get to Pagford. Nana Cath was gone, Mr. Fairbrother was gone, but Fats Wall was there, and she needed to make a baby.

Just in case the first time didn’t work. I honestly thought she was already pregnant, and it disappoints me that that explosive change and drama is going to wait until later.

She calls Fats and he reluctantly agrees to meet her there. This section is less than two pages long, and there are only two other things of note:

  1. I  like that Rowling is depicting the consequences of Fats’ lifestyle, first by stating in IV how numb his mouth is, and here stating how tired he is from staying up all night, to the point that he wanted to go to bed in the afternoon.
  2. The conversation between Colin and Tessa is just as bizarre as Fats says, and it is hilarious (though I hope that Tessa did eventually convince Colin that he did not kill Barry).

VIII

I was very eager to see the consequences of Miles’ discovery of Samantha kissing Andrew, and Rowling doesn’t disappoint. The section opens with Samantha forced to leave her hiding place to go to the bathroom, and it describes her taking a shower and all she can to delay having to go out and find Miles. It’s written very realistically and in a very in-the-moment way.

Samantha’s feelings are portrayed well, and the only real disappointment to me is that it skips right from her about to leave the bathroom to “Miles was sitting in the kitchen when she entered“. No, no, no, describe Samantha walking down the hall, nervously, building up the tension gradually until we reach this moment. We had been going through Samantha’s experience with her, looking at this through her eyes, and we still do afterwards. So why does she slip up here?

But afterwards she does a good job building up the tension and creating the talk between Miles and Samantha, though.

“Last night,” said Miles, “at my father’s birthday party, I came to look for you, and I found you snogging a sixteen-year-”
“Sixteen-year-old, yes,” said Samantha. “Legal. One good thing.”

What? How can it possibly be legal? No, I checked. The legal age of adulthood in England is 18. In fact, the driving age limit is 17!

But….. oh, this is it. The shit has hit the fan now. This is the climax of Miles and Samantha’s relationship.

“What the hell’s going on with you?” said Miles.
“I’m…unhappy,” said Samantha.
“Why?” asked Miles, but then he added quickly, “Is it the shop? Is it that?”
“A bit,” said Samantha. “But I hate living in Pagford. I hate living on top of your parents. And sometimes,” she said slowly, “I hate waking up next to you.”

I was very surprised that Samantha actually tells Miles she isn’t sure whether or not she’s in love with him and admits to being glad he was alive on the day she heard of Barry Fairbrother’s death. It seemed that she was 100% discontented and disliking him, but then we realize that she had to have been attracted to him at one point. And Rowling sneakily shows us the real issue. Samantha lusted after Miles when he was a young man just as she lusts after Andrew and the boy band member now. But when he got older, she couldn’t stand him and wants to have a new man, a young man. And probably if she married Andrew or the boy band member she would grow tired of them as they lost their youth and lust after young men again. Many readers will probably declare her a pedophile as I previously did and unanimously declare their disgust for her, but to be honest I just think it’s unfortunate that she was born as a woman. This is basically the way practically every man thinks, and society doesn’t care. They’re allowed to be this way. Just think of it. When have you ever seen an old man marry a woman remotely close to his own age or have a relationship with a woman close to his age? When women are no longer young, a great majority of men simply lose their attraction for them and start relationships with young women, and they’re allowed to. Nobody cares. But when a woman does the same thing she’s a disgusting, despicable pedophile. Then again, Samantha was lusting after a 16-year-old, but the point still stands.

But the thing that really shocked me was how polite Samantha was in explaining her feelings to him. In fact, it’s Miles who is rude and drives her to the breaking point.

“-well, I meant what I said – you’re not fit to fill his shoes!”
“What?” he said, and his chair fell over as he jumped to his feet, while Samantha strode to the kitchen door.
“You heard me,” she shouted. “Like my letter said, Miles, you’re not fit to fill Barry Fairbrother’s shoes. He was sincere.”

This was a shocker. I mean, I know she didn’t think Miles was fit to take the seat, but Samantha didn’t seem to have any interest in politics so I wouldn’t expect her to talk this away about Barry! In fact, it honestly seems out-of-character for her when you consider her boredom and nonchalance during all the scenes where politics are discussed.

The look on his face unnerved her. Out in the hall, she slipped on clogs, the first pair of shoes she could find, and was through the front door before he could catch up.

Both Mollison marriages have been destroyed. Another relationship has come to an end. And unlike Gavin, this cannot end well for Samantha, and it will probably end up with her in prison. And Miles? Oh, he has the world. Unlike Samantha, he can have all the young ladies he wants.

IX

Now we are with Krystal on the bus into Pagford with Robbie. I like how we are shown more of Krystal’s mothering instincts toward Robbie and her dream of taking care of him and the baby she plans to have.

Then we cut to Fats waiting for her, who is trying to avoid Andrew seeing him. I get that he’s resentful towards Andrew for leaving, but when he’s admitted to himself that Andrew is his closest friend, you’d think he would try to cherish the last time he can have with him. It just seems very strange to me.

Rowling devotes so much time to the characters. She doesn’t have Fats just ignore the presence of Robbie so the plot with him and Krystal can go wherever it’s going. She portrays his thoughts and discomfort with having Robbie there.

At last, when Krystal had handed her brother the crisps, she said to Fats, “Where’ll we go?”
Surely, he thought, she could not mean that they were going to shag. Not with the boy there. He had had some idea of taking her to the Cubby Hole: it was private, and it would be a final desecration of his and Andrew’s friendship; he owed nothing to anyone, anymore. But he balked at the idea of fucking in front of a three-year-old.

I really like how Rowling portrays Fats and Krystal’s relationship. They are two teenagers who are a couple because they both feel it’s time to have a boyfriend/girlfriend. They don’t have any real attraction towards each other, and they don’t have any clue what to do when they’re together expect to have sex in any random place they can think of on the spur of the moment. I also like the brief revelation that Fats had realized Andrew’s crush on Gaia.

We get some introspection by Krystal about considering going to visit Kay at her house, but I don’t know how well this could turn out or if Krystal could even help them. Fats is reluctant to have sex with Krystal where Robbie can see, but he decides “Dane Tully would do it. Pikey Pritchard would do it. Cubby, not in a million years.” Yes, I think if Dane Tully and Pikey Pritchard jumped off a bridge, Fats would do it, too. Which is of course the exact opposite of inauthenticity. Haven’t quite perfected the art yet, Fats.

Krystal slipped and slid down the bank toward the patch of undergrowth, hoping that Fats was not going to make any difficulties about doing it with a condom.

That’s how this section ends, and it’s clear at this point that Krystal’s bizarre scheme will come to fruition in the last two parts, and this really makes me anxious. That isn’t enough time for her to give birth, and this doesn’t seem like the kind of story that can have a happy ending. Krystal is going to have a miscarriage, Obbo is going to kill Terri or something, maybe she’ll overdose. I don’t know. Somebody’s going to die, horrible things are going to happen. And I can’t stand knowing this and having to wait for it.

X

We are now in Gavin’s third-person POV. I like the bit of continuity in how he tries to avoid Samantha after their awkward, somewhat rude conversation in III. He is going to see Mary, planning on how to reveal his feelings towards her.

Still keeping my options open, he thought, as he crossed the bridge on foot. There was a small boy sitting by himself on a bench, eating sweets, below him. I don’t have to say anything….I’ll play it by ear….

The small boy is Robbie. In an interesting detail, he is in the same area as Krystal, Fats, and Robbie at the same time. It’s a strange way of leading into the next section, but I like it and wish Rowling had used it more often. Even more strangely, the narrative abruptly cuts to Gavin at Mary’s house with Mary having just answered the door and inviting him in.

The narrative states that she “seemed pleased to see him” and she informs Gavin that one of her relatives has suggested she move back to Liverpool. These factors bode well for Gavin’s chances with her, but the reason behind her strong desire to stay in Pagford does not: She can’t stand to leave Barry’s grave. And Rowling does a good job portraying Gavin’s emotions spiraling up and downwards, as well as the brief look into Gavin’s thought process detailing his dislike for burial. I strongly suspect that this and Dr. Jawanda’s feelings against burial are Rowling’s own, and I can definitely see why people choose cremation now.

Gavin and Mary discuss Miles’ win and how it means everything Barry fought for is now ruined, and Mary can’t help but express her resentment towards her dead husband
(including mentioning Krystal’s refusal to contribute to Barry’s wreath, despite everyone else on the rowing team doing it, which was strange to me when I first heard it. Krystal is clearly saddened by Barry’s death. So why didn’t she contribute?).

“Mary,” said Gavin, leaving his chair, moving to her side (on the rope bridge now, with a sense of mingled panic and anticipation), “look…it’s really early…I mean, it’s far too soon…but you’ll meet someone else.”
“At forty,” sobbed Mary, “with four children…”
“Plenty of men,” he began, but that was no good; he would rather she did not think she had too many options. “The right man,” he corrected himself, “won’t care that you’ve got kids. Anyway, they’re such nice kids…anyone would be glad to take them on.”
“Oh, Gavin, you’re so sweet,” she said, dabbing her eyes again.

So, yes, it’s all going unbelievably well for Gavin. His prospects for marrying Mary are unbelievably high, and then he decides to ruin it all by blurting out “Mary, I think I’m in love with you.”

Just blurting it out at this point creates obvious resentment from her who does not think he realizes the state she’s in now. So he finds it necessary to abruptly leave, his chances with her completely ruined.

I know he told her because he was afraid someone else would tell her first if he didn’t, but it would be better if they did. He had every chance, every likelihood that she would eventually begin a relationship with him, and in his idiotic impatience he said it at the worst possible moment: when she’s recently widowed. If he had only let it develop naturally, he might have ended up with her. Then again, maybe not, considering Gavin believes and she almost did start to say, “even if I weren’t grieving” but this might have just been an excuse. She was willing to marry again some day, and she liked Gavin. The more he was there with her the closer they would grow over the years and eventually she might accept a proposal from him. Who knows? In any case, it’s all flushed down the toilet now. In one idiotic instant, their story ends happily for no one.

XI

And now we are back with Howard and Shirley, another relationship that is on the brink of collapse. Shirley is very resentful towards her husband and Maureen, though Howard now is making a larger effort to deny the affair.

I’m very eager to see what Shirley is going to do about it. She’s trying to prevent Howard and Maureen from communicating, but after leaving to go to lunch with her granddaughter she realizes she isn’t going to be able to stop this and she’s just given them the perfect opportunity to talk. (Howard is staying at home sick in bed. I’m not sure whether he’s faking it because he doesn’t want people to prod him about the post at the restaurant or if it’s genuine.)

And when Shirley gets to the restaurant, she doesn’t confront Maureen, she just has a casual, polite conversation with her. Rowling does a great job writing her emotions about the revelation of the affair, but I can’t figure out, what in the next two parts, she is going to do about it.

But that’s forgotten for now, because Maureen revealed a surprising bit of information: Gaia and Sukhvinder did not come to work. Gaia likely because she can’t face Andrew after kissing Fats, and Sukhvinder likely because she can’t face Gaia due to being angry over her kissing Fats. Indeed Andrew nearly left because he was afraid he would get fired for kissing Samantha. I think his inner thoughts about this are done well.

But the end of the section is very strange.

He went to fetch a napkin for Lexie and almost collided with his boss’s wife, who was standing behind the counter, holding his EpiPen.
“Howard wanted me to check something,” Shirley told him. “And this needle shouldn’t be kept in here. I’ll put it in the back.”

But why is this important enough to bother mentioning? It seems that Shirley doesn’t know about the incident with Samantha and Andrew, so she can’t be angry at him. And Howard didn’t tell her to check anything, as far as we know. And if he had, wouldn’t she say what it was? Is she going to use it to poison Howard or something? I mean, I know it’s insane, but it’s the only real reason for including that I can think of, and it seems like the only option for Shirley. But I… I don’t know.

XII

I had thought that the scene with Krystal and Fats by the canal had ended with IX, but surprisingly we’re back with them. It seems designed so that Rowling can do a very strange thing: write a section from the 3rd-person POV of the three-and-a-half-year-old Robbie.

Considering how developmentally behind and oblivious he has been shown to be, this would seem to be impossible. Rowling manages it mainly by portraying his emotions simplistically and childishly. The prose is a proper wording of the emotions Robbie experiences but could never express as eloquently. But it still feels like Robbie has aged suddenly, considering how oblivious he was in his first appearance. He seems too intelligent and aware of his surroundings, capable of rational thought.

And there’s another strange thing Rowling does: First Gavin walks past Robbie down the road, and Rowling goes out of her way to include a rationale of why in parentheses. (We get a good sense of how deeply he’s ruined his own life. He has basically no one now, and you feel sorry for him.) And then Samantha walks by across the football field, watched by Robbie, and we get some of her emotions and thoughts she’s going through. And then we get Shirley walking by and she is apparently going to use the needle to trigger some sort of attack in Howard, and then likely confront him over the affair and order him out. (Also, she spots Krystal and Fats having sex and is disgusted.)

This all happens between Robbie wandering around searching for water and Krystal, and it was obviously written to portray all of these characters’ emotions, which are written very well as usual, and to indulge her own cleverness in writing all the characters to be going by. But it comes off as very strange that she uses the 3-and-a-half-year-old child as the POV character for it. It’s very surreal and as much as I like seeing what all the characters are going through, I think it could’ve been skipped.

XIII

And now we switch to the third-person POV of Sukhvinder. Where did she go when she cut work? Just randomly wandering around Pagford.

She had waited for a while at the bus stop where you could catch a bus into Yarvil, but then she had spotted Shirley and Lexie Mollison coming down the road, and dived out of sight.

All right, Rowling is just having fun playing with the world she’s created at this point. But we do get interesting insight into why Sukhvinder didn’t go to work. Because she can’t face Gaia, yes, but her feelings about her kissing Fats are different from how I thought they were, yet they make perfect sense, and when you think about it, yes, that’s exactly what her feelings would be, and it’s nice to have an author who does think about it.

Gaia’s betrayal had been brutal and unexpected. Pulling Fats Wall…he would drop Krystal now that he had Gaia. Any boy would drop any girl for Gaia, she knew that. But she could not bear to go to work and hear her one ally trying to tell her that Fats was all right, really.

However, Gaia leaves her three texts which send a heavy implication to her that she only did it because she was drunk and doesn’t even remember it, yet she still is unwilling to go work and speak to Gaia, and randomly wants to spend her hard-earned cash on a hotel or flat: just some quiet place where she can stay and slit her wrists.
Her thought process is very strange and doesn’t make sense to me.

But then she crosses the bridge, so we know that she is in the scene with Krystal and Robbie. And sure enough she sees Krystal and Fats looking for Robbie and hides from them.

I really like this style and how cleverly it interwines the characters. I think it’s very clever, and I wish Rowling had used it more often to synch up the events together.

But then……

Sukhvinder caught sight of something in the river below.
Her hands were already on the hot stone ledge before she had thought about what she was doing, and then she had hoisted herself onto the edge of the bridge; she yelled, “He’s in the river, Krys!” and dropped, feetfirst, into the water. Her leg was sliced open by a broken computer monitor as she was pulled under by the current.

OH MY FUCKING GOD THIS ALL HAPPENED SO QUICKLY! Rowling was foreshadowing this with Sukhvinder’s dream of drowning. Sukhvinder is going to die, Robbie is going to be taken away and given to a foster family over this if he doesn’t drown!

XIV

And the madness just continues! Shirley is looking for Howard TO MURDER HIM WITH THE NEEDLE, but she can’t find him in the house so she assumes he has gone to the restaurant.

She half ran into the sitting room, intending to telephone the Copper Kettle. Howard was lying on the carpet in his pajamas.
His face was purple and his eyes were popping. A faint wheezing noise came from his lips. One hand was clutching feebly at his chest. His pajama top had ridden up. Shirley could see the very patch of scabbed raw skin where she had planned to plunge the needle.

And her first instinct is to run and hide the needle instead of GOING TO CALL AN AMBULANCE BECAUSE HER HUSBAND IS DYING.

She ran back into the sitting room, seized the telephone receiver and dialed 999.
“Pagford? This is for Orrbank Cottage, isn’t it? There’s one on the way.”
“Oh, thank you, thank God,” said Shirley, and she had almost hung up when she realized what she had said and screamed, “no, no, not Orrbank Cottage…”
But the operator had gone and she had to dial again. She was panicking so much that she dropped the receiver. On the carpet beside her, Howard’s wheezing was becoming fainter and fainter.
“Not Orrbank Cottage,” she shouted. “Thirty-six Evertree Crescent, Pagford – my husband’s having a heart attack…”

Oh my fucking lord this is completely insane.

XV

The next section picks up directly from the last, with Miles, informed of the news, running to Dr. Jawanda’s door to try to get her to help. She tells him she can’t because she has been suspended from work. It doesn’t seem like a callous act of revenge, it seems to be just her commitment to the rules. If it’s the former, it isn’t very smart, since Howard would likely do his best to get her back her job and fix the trouble he created for her.

I love how in this time of panic all personal grudges and issues are completely forgotten. Samantha comes by and Miles acts like he forgot about the kitchen incident and finding her kissing Andrew and begins treating her exactly as he would have the day before.

And the scene then abruptly changes to two passersby taking care of Sukhvinder and Robbie who are lying on the riverbank.

“No good,” said the man, who had worked on Robbie’s little body for twenty minutes. “He’s gone.”
Sukhvinder wailed, and slumped to the cold wet ground, shaking furiously as the sound of the siren reached them, too late.

I don’t know what to say. It’s just so…. sad. And yet it’s very clever writing. Sukhvinder spent every waking moment of her life yearning for death, her greatest desire to drown in particular, and she jumped into the river likely expecting she might not live and would die in a noble sacrifice. But she survived and the one who had yet begun to live, who did not intend to drown, did not even understand the concept of death, did not. And now Terri has lost the only thing that was keeping her from losing herself to drugs again. Now she has lost it all.

Considering all this and the fact that the part ends with Maureen at the door of the restaurant savoring the excitement of a disaster she has yet to learn the details of, it’s easy to see why people called this book cynical. But Rowling’s optimism for humankind is incredible. She clearly believes that in times of crisis people will simply forget their personal problems and do the best they can to help others out of pure selflessness. And yet, she reminds us, human nature is immensely mutable.

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