The Book Thief is not an average novel. Perhaps that's putting it lightly. The Book Thief is unconventional and different in a way that will either shove you out of the story or pull you head first into it. It has been both praised for being emotionally resonant and despised for being emotionally manipulative. Call it creative, call it pretentious, the truth is that Book Thief doesn't really care what you think. It freely uses or discards the rules of novel writing in order to achieve its own unique tone and style. Whether you love or hate that style is up to you.
Our narrator is Death. The year is 1939. We begin the story with the first time Death meets Leisel Meminger. Liesel is on her way to a foster home in the (fictional) German town of Molching when her younger brother dies on the train. At the funeral Liesel sees a gravedigger drop his handbook. She takes it with her, her first instance of book thievery.
In Molching she is placed under the care of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, who live on Himmel Strasse (which, in German, is "Heaven street.") But Himmel street is far from heavenly, especially in Hitler's Germany. Liesel encounters dirt and abuse, becomes fluent in German curse words, meets Rudy Steiner, joins the Hitler Youth, learns to read, and steals her second book—a novel, taken from the ashes of a Nazi bonfire. She soon finds herself reading it to a young Jewish fistfighter named Max when Hans Hubermann takes him in and hides him in the basement. But Death is very busy, and he will only get busier.
A small content warning: the above mentioned German curse words do not remain untranslated. While the swearing itself remains on a level that most content meters would deem "moderate", it is worth noting that the person with the foulest mouth happens to be Liesel's mother, Rosa Hubermann, whose preferred method of showing affection is through swearing vociferously at her foster daughter and husband. And the horrors of World War II are not significantly abridged—just experienced from the other side. There were German mothers, too, praying that their sons would come home.
But the grim reality of the world at that time is cut through with the joyful reality of life that comes across in the writing style. Markus Zusak splatters metaphors over the pages with the zeal of an abstract artist. Some of his sentences are basically poetry, not prose, which can be pleasant at times and jarring at others. His metaphors are often messy, sometimes they're mixed, and a lot of times they miss their mark. But Zusak is not going for accuracy, but for tone. And the tone that comes across is one that is sorrowful and bittersweet, joyful but yet darkly humorous. Which is to be expected when your narrator is Death.
Death, that intrepid narrator, is constantly interrupting the story with little nudges and asides, with dictionary definitions, with German words, with warnings about what's going to happen next. Death loves to tell you what's going to happen before it happens. He begins the book by announcing who's going to die (everyone), how many books our book thief is going to steal (just three), and his personal mechanism for coping with his job (colors). This kills a lot of the suspense, but then subtly replaces it with a sense of foreboding. Because you are (continually) reminded that these characters you are growing attached to are going to die, the approaching end begins to fill you with a sense of dread. The message, of course, is clear: that death is inevitable, that not even Death can escape the reality of death.
That's not to imply that the message of the book is a sort of "Death is swallowed up by death" ending. It's rather far from it. Death in the book is a sympathetic narrator, a type of being that is doomed to his job for all eternity. He does not particularly affiliate himself with any type of religion. He vaguely mentions a sort of afterlife, but he really doesn't know and isn't curious about what happens after death. If anything, the ending of the book is one that is (quite literally) humanistic; that humans are terrible and wonderful complex creatures that Death just cannot understand. He is haunted by them. And while there is within the story an uplifting message about how love and courage can save people even in the darkest places, without any sort of foundation on God (or any higher standard for that matter) it just kind of falls flat. Not that the message of hope rings false—just that it doesn't ring as true as it could.
There are books for light reading, and then there are books that are meant to be lived in. Everything else being said, The Book Thief is one of those stories that is a whole world unto itself. Through his metaphors and pictures and poetry and prose, his brave and stupid and coarse and kind and troubled characters, his grim narrator and even grimmer subject matter, Markus Zusak weaves a story that is larger than itself; a story full of pain but also full of hope.
Book Thief was made into a movie in 2013. It followed the story pretty closely while eliminating most of the (English) swearing.
Review by Lauren Shearer
Lauren Shearer writes words for fun and profit. She also makes films, but everyone knows you can't make a profit doing that. Her other hobby is consistently volunteering way too much of her time. You can read more of her reviews here
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