Recent Reads: “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

Book Thief cover

The Book Thief
Markus Zusak
Historical Fiction / Young Adult
550 pages

Synopsis:

It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

By her brother’s graveside, Liesel Meminger’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Grave Digger’s Handbook, left there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the hel of her accordion-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever there are books to be found.

But these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened up and closed down.

In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak, author of I Am the Messenger, has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Dear Mr. Zusak,

I don’t normally write epistolary book reviews. However, in the case of your best-selling novel The Book Thief, this is the most instinctive and appropriate way of sharing my thoughts. It’s not because I’m angry, distraught, or disappointed with your work. No. In fact, it’s for the opposite reason: I want to thank you for writing the newest book to find a permanent home on my “Unforgettable Reads” shelf.

The Book Thief is one of those searing tales where the reader witnesses war through a child’s eyes. The details don’t reach graphic or gory heights, yet nothing is sugarcoated. Readers see how families are torn apart, reunited, and redefined; and how massive gaps between the wealthy and the impoverished grow wider yet can still be bridged. And thanks to the setting of Germany during World War II, we also experience the disenchantment of Hitler Youth and the dangerous decision to open one’s heart to the Jewish population – again, from a child’s perspective. Sometimes, there’s nothing more rewarding than watching young characters wrestle with complex situations and emotions, and seeing their inner goodness endure in the end.

Speaking of your characters, I adored just about everyone I met in The Book Thief. Rudy, Frau Holtzapfel, Rosa Hubermann, Max Vandenberg – each was believable and well-rounded, with flaws that coaxed smiles to my face and moments of sadness that showed a new yet realistic side to them. My two favorites are no surprise, however. Liesel has so much spirit, determination, and love in her heart. Her sassiness made me laugh, and her deep desire to sop up stories and their meanings like a sponge is mind-boggling. I wish I was reading books the way she was when I was her age. And then there’s Liesel’s foster father, Hans Hubermann. A gentle, caring, artistic soul, he wanted nothing more than to see his new daughter succeed in life and keep her safe. No one could ask for a better father, either blood-relative or adoptive.

There’s also something to be said about novels that emphasize the power of the written word. Characters reading, saving books from bonfires and stealing them from libraries, recording their own lives on paper, sharing their stories with others, reviewing dictionary definitions to fully grasp a word’s meaning… I’m sure I’m missing more examples from The Book Thief, but the point is, this book is an ode to storytelling. Even the narrative style epitomizes this idea. Everyone is touched by stories at some point in their lives; and when they truly resonate with us, we feel compelled to share them with others. (Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I’m doing right now….)

I have to admit, I can’t award The Book Thief a perfect grade because it took me a while to get used to Death as the narrator. I’m not a fan of third-person omniscient POVs. In my opinion, the style seems too limitless, unrestricted. Plus, I wasn’t keen on Death sometimes drawing itself out of the narrative to speak directly to the reader. It interrupted my overall experience with Liesel’s story. Notice, however, that I said “get used to” in that first sentence. By bonding with Liesel, we bond with the supporting characters, and their stories become important to us as well. Every scene has its purpose, either for character development or plot advancement. I was also intrigued when Death shared sensation reactions (flinching at certain smells) or its admiration – even pity – for certain characters. You were able to humanize a “figure” that we the living often fear, making it a more comforting presence that many would expect.

Finally, Part 10. You and I both know what happens there, so I won’t give specifics (especially since people who haven’t read The Book Thief yet are bound to see this review). I did a double-take when I finished the first chapter of Part 10. Then, I read it again, just to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me. Only then did I continue on with the rest of the book. And I cried. Mr. Zusak, I rarely cry when I read. Not only did I cry because the tragedy of that section broke my heart, but because it offered devastatingly beautiful closure as well as an ember of hope, both of which made sense given the external circumstances.

So, in closing, Mr. Zusak, thank you for bringing The Book Thief to the world. It took me to dark, frightening, and sorrowful places at times, but it also buoyed my spirits and gave me another reason to be grateful for reading. That’s what a great book – no, a incredible book – should always accomplish, regardless of its target audience.

All the best from a fellow “book thief,”
Sara L.

Have you read The Book Thief? What did you think of it? If you haven’t read it yet, do you think you might check it out based on what you’ve read above? Let me know by commenting below or visiting the same review at Amazon or Goodreads.