Haunted by Humans: A Review of The Book Thief

The_Book_Thief_by_Markus_Zusak_book_cover

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Knopf Books for Young Readers

March 14, 2006

550 pages

“Here’s a small fact – you are going to die.” That’s how Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2006) starts. With this line, Zusak immediately sets the tone for the rest of the novel, a grim story set in Nazi Germany in 1939, narrated by Death itself. The story is about a nine-year-old girl whose parents have been sent to a concentration camp and who ends up in a foster home, right at the start of the Second World War. The novel deals with learning to read and stealing books to keep them from getting burned, with trying to make friends and hiding a person in the basement, with careful affection as well as despair. I first read Zusak’s novel about six years ago and I have already reread it very often, but there is something about it that makes me keep coming back to it, something that affects me more than most other books.

My favorite aspect of this novel is, by far, the narrative. Zusak tells this story through the eyes of Death, which makes this one of the most interesting narrations I have ever come across. Zusak’s writing is lyrical and haunting, and Death’s voice honest and almost self-deprecating. The dark humor with which Zusak tells this story fits perfectly with the plot and the setting. Even though I am very invested in the characters, Death’s narration also makes the reader feel a bit detached from the story. It reads a bit like you’re watching it play out from above. There is a certain distance to it, mostly in the way that Death explains what is going to happen from the very first chapter. Even though I usually prefer to figure out clues as I go or just let the story wash over me, I found that it didn’t bother me to know the ending from the start. It makes the story more melancholy and more resigned. Because of this way of storytelling, the novel reads quite slow at times, and is a lot more introspective than a title like The Book Thief would make it out to be. In a good way.

Speaking of the title, the importance of books and reading is a recurring theme throughout the novel, and it is this aspect that initially made me pick up the book. Arguably, the main character of this story is Liesel, who has been taken away from her parents and put in a foster home. It is in this new home that she is taught how to read by her foster father Hans, and where she discovers the true value of books. When Nazis throughout the country are starting to burn books to get rid of the knowledge and information, Liesel starts to save them. She becomes captivated by the power of language and stories, and this plays an important role in her story, especially as she shares these stories with Max, a Jewish refugee hiding in her foster parents’ basement. As someone with a love for both literature and linguistics, this aspect of the novel was very relatable to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Another aspect I found very compelling was the characterization, and how Zusak depicted the life of average people living in Germany during the war. Liesel struggles with horrific events that happened in her past. Her story is about what it is like for a child to grow up in Germany at this time, where the horror of the Nazi regime is destructive to a person’s childhood and innocence. Liesel’s foster parents, Hans and Rosa, deal with the war in different ways. Hans’s friendliness and compassion are an interesting juxtaposition to Rosa’s sternness and distance. Still, they both care a great deal about fighting for what is right, even if it is only in minor ways. Liesel’s friend Rudy brings a certain lightheartedness to the story with his playfulness and affection for Liesel, but their few moments of being able to truly play and be carefree show just how much the war affected German children. Finally, Zusak shows a different side of the war through Max, the Jewish refugee, because it is through her interactions with Max that Liesel learns what is really happening in the war. It is also Max and Liesel’s friendship that truly shows that language and stories are universal.

The Book Thief is a dark and lyrical story that deals with hope in a time of despair and love in a time of hate. Zusak’s interesting narrative and memorable characters truly show the struggles and sacrifices brought on by the Second World War, and he also shows perfectly the beauty and importance of words and books. It is a book unlike any other I have ever read, and I will keep rereading it until my paperback falls apart. And then I’ll buy another copy.

Judith

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