The Book Thief ★★★★★

The Book Thief ★★★★★
Markus Zusak

Genre(s) | Historical Fiction, Young Adult
Goodreads Rating | 4.36
Humpo Show Rating | 
Published: 2007
Publisher: Transworld

Nazi Germany in the years 1939-43 provide the backdrop to this heart-breakingly beautiful story of a young German girl called Liesel, whose book-stealing exploits and story-telling talents help to comfort her foster family during this famously tragic and turbulent time. Her life and story catches the eye of our unique narrator, Death, who witnesses humanity’s kindness, beauty and love, but he also intersects her story with a haunting commentary on the horrors of war. 

Zusak’s decision to choose to have Death as the narrator was a masterstroke. The omniscience of his character helps to draw in on the wartime events that are occurring throughout Europe. His commentary on the human condition throughout The Book Thief is evocative and soul-stirring. He is plagued by seeing the terrible things humans do and he can not fathom how humans  can be so kind and yet still cause so much destruction and suffering; a key theme in the story.

Wartime Germany is vividly depicted, and it almost comes across as an added character given the constant presence of the landscape. The realistic nature of the setting is cemented by the bombing attacks, rationing, book burnings, and men torn apart from their homes and families.

‘The bombs came down and soon the clouds would bake and the cold raindrops would turn to ash. Hot snowflakes would shower to the ground.’

‘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.’

Zusak’s writing style, which is perhaps the best writing style I have encountered since Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s, is on full display when he analyses the destruction of war. The imagery is apt and fits perfectly with the violence that cities across Europe had to contend with because of Hitler’s greed and pursuit of European dominance. The devastation that was felt in many cities across the continent is encapsulated by Zusak, who is a master at succinctly phrasing the result of bombings, so much so that readers can imagine the scene graphically. He brings his command of metaphorical language to the book burning scene where he manages to convey the symbolism of what the German people were doing to Jewish literature, fittingly.

‘The orange flames waved at the crowd as paper and print dissolved inside them. Burning words were torn from their sentences.’

Death is first aware of Liesel when her younger brother dies on the way to Molching. They are leaving to join their new foster family, the Hubermann’s. Death watches Liesel steal her first book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, and thus begins the story of ‘The Book Thief’, who soon arrives at her foster home where we are introduced to her new parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. I couldn’t resist showing off Zusak’s writing style once again through his descriptions of these two wonderful people. First we have a description of Hans, through words chosen by Liesel:

‘Papa sat with me tonight. He brought the accordion down and sat close to where Max used to sit. I often look at his fingers and face when he plays. The accordion breathes. There are lines on his cheeks. They look drawn on, and for some reason, when I see them, I want to cry. It us not for any sadness or pride. I just like the way they move and change. Sometimes I think my papa is an accordion. When he looks at me and smiles and breathes, I hear the notes.’

Next is Rosa, the woman with a foul mouth, but with the biggest heart:

‘On the other was the squat shape of Rosa Hubermann, who looked like a small wardrobe with a coat thrown over it. There was a distinct waddle to her walk. Almost cute, if it wasn’t for her face, which was like creased-up cardboard and annoyed, as if she were merely tolerating all of it.’

Two other crucial characters that become a massive part of Liesel’s life are Rudy and Max. Liesel becomes best friends with her neighbour Rudy, a boy with ‘hair the colour of lemons’, and who idolises the black Olympic champion sprinter Jesse Owens. They get up to all kinds of mischief, and they develop a loving friendship that is sustained through their shared talents of stealing, football, and the tit-for-tat banter that is a regular feature whenever they are playing together. Whereas Rudy comes across as boy full of life, Max on the other hand, comes to Himmel Street as a Jew in hiding- gaunt, pale, and desperate. During the First World War, Hans befriends a man who doesn’t survive, and when Hans visits the widow, he makes a promise that he would do anything for her or her son (Max) in times of trouble. Max arrives at this promise, and he develops a close bond with Liesel. His character leads to a plethora of tender moments, and he is also responsible for The Standover Man and The Word Shaker, two stories that he has written over the white-painted pages of Mein Kampf, that are heartrendingly sublime.

Markus Zusak is an artist of words, his lyrical and poetic style helps to elevate this brilliant story into the pantheon of Historical Fiction and Young Adult books. The richness of the descriptions as well as the richness of the characters’ hearts is evident in every chapter, and as the readers become to know the characters he has created, we become more invested in their lives, and when war inevitably intervenes, our reactions vindicate the meticulously detailed characters that we have come to love.

The Book Thief is about the power of words and language. Zusak’s eloquence is apposite in that he writes a story where wartime Germany proves to be the perfect environment for Death to witness the wide spectrum of humanity. Whereas Hitler and Nazi Germany show off the worst that humanity has to offer, the small acts of defiance and kindness shown by the characters throughout the story, prove that some humans strive to see beauty in the world even when it all seems bleak and doomed. Even in the darkest corner of Europe where tragedy is only a second away from hitting, they bring pockets of light in the form of love and happiness, and that light will never be extinguished.

The Humpo Show | Richard

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9 thoughts on “The Book Thief ★★★★★

  1. I’m still so proud of you for reading The Book Thief!!! I so agree with everything you’ve said. This book is masterful and emotive. Having Death as the narrator just further emphasises the horrors of war. One of the most haunting lines from the book was Death stating that even he is haunted by humans. I get chills every time I think of that moment.

  2. The Book Thief is one of my most treasured books which I own. I completely agree with having Death as the narrator is pure stroke of brilliance by Zusak and completely drew me into the novel. I feel that ‘Deaths’ observations are inspired and only ‘he’ understands humans truly. In a way I hope that Zusak will create another story with Death as the narrator though I don’t think he will. But it would be interesting to see who else has caught Death’s eye so that he tells their story.

    • It would be nice to read another similar book from him, but I agree, I don’t think having Death narrate again will happen.
      I love it when someone says “most treasured book” as I imagine the person hugging the book daily and having a special place for it on their shelves 🙂

      • Haha the most treasured book for me it at the bottom of the shelf – I organise by author’s surname alphabetically. I think it’s treasured more in my mind as the story it conveys is so thought proking and powerful. I doubt the story will ever leave me.

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