038. Review of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I finished Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief last night and sat in the bathroom bawling my eyes out for ten minutes straight.

This book is utterly amazing. True, it seems like one of those books that EVERYBODY says is good, and therefore it seems like it should be overrated. But it isn’t. I challenge you to find anyone who doesn’t find this book incredibly compelling and well-written. If you can, I will write a romantic ode to Stephenie Meyer, who I hate with a burning passion.

The Book Thief, as you may very well know already, is a book set in WWII-era Germany. The protagonist, Liesel, is not Jewish, which frankly is a breath of fresh air. Don’t get me wrong — I do like literature about the Holocaust and its Jewish survivors. I’ve read plenty of it: Maus, Auschwitz and After, Number the Stars, The Shawl, and many, many others. But while these books are good in their own right, sometimes it gets to be too much — to be desensitizing. And to an extent, they are all the same (and for good reason). Sometimes, I want to read about that time period, and I want to read about the other side of the war.

And The Book Thief gives that. Liesel is German. Her brother dies and she is taken from her mother and sent to the town of Molching, where she is adopted by Hans and Rosa Hubermann, two full-blooded Germans who are just … wonderful characters. The novel tracks Liesel’s life in Molching, showing her everyday life, her life as affected by the war, the dangers and tragedies she encounters. But the greatest chunk of the book deals with the Hubermanns taking in a Jewish fugitive named Max.

The relationship between Max and preteen Liesel is incredibly fleshed out. It progresses beautifully — not, however, romantically, so don’t get any odd ideas about that — into this marvelous friendship that is kept secret from everybody except those in the Hubermann household. It’s so … touching. It sounds so lame to say that, but that’s really the only way it can be described. It’s a touching, beautiful friendship, and in fact, despite the wholly different dynamics of each relationship between each set of characters, all of the relationships are like this.

There is Rosa and Liesel, who base their relationship in insults and harsh words, but deep down there’s this unquestionable love. There’s Liesel and her best friend Rudy, who tease and taunt and challenge each other and work their mischief together, and who fall in childlike love together that is pure and simple and perfectly understated. There’s Liesel and the mayor’s wife, Ilsa, who begin their relationship in uncomfortable silence and which grows into an unlikely friendship predicated on tragedy and books. And there is, of course, Hans and Liesel — and Liesel loves Hans most. They have the relationship every father and daughter should have, and it is for this reason that the end is utterly heartbreaking.

There’s one thing I have not yet touched upon: the fact that The Book Thief is narrated by Death. And it is brilliant. Death does not believe in mystery or suspense, and thus he tells you flat out which characters are going to die and when. It does not soften the blow. Death has an odd, quirky, insight into everything, and his observations and narration are beautifully worked. Having never read anything else by Zusak, it is hard to tell whether this incredible wordsmithing is Zusak’s own personal style or whether it’s Death-as-narrator’s own voice, but he describes things in such an original, fresh, and unforced way. As a writer, every time I read a sentence or phrase like that, I thought, “Damn — how does he think of that?” Because it’s original but in a way that you realise it’s the absolute perfect way to describe it, but you could never have thought of it yourself.

Some great examples:

“Her voice was like suicide, landing with a clunk at Liesel’s feet” (391).

“Behind him, a building groaned and tripped” (433).

“His cool voice was unusually warm. Half-baked” (272).

“Rosa had a small rip beneath her right eye, and within the minute, her cardboard face was broken. Not down the center, but to the right. It gnarled down her cheek in an arc, finishing at her chin” (419).

 

All in all: you will cry at the end of this book. Do not read it in public. But do read it — it’s worth the tears.

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