Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief was reviewed by one of the book blogs I follow, though I'm ashamed to admit that I can't remember which blog. The review was positive, the concept sounded intriguing, and the library had a copy of it, so I checked it out.

If someone told you that a book was set in Nazi Germany and the narrator was Death, then you probably would assume that the book isn't going to end well for a lot of characters. Or go well at all, for that matter. That would be an accurate assumption and Death makes it very clear early on that several major characters aren't going to survive the story.

In fact, the novel starts with one death and one very bleak future. Death first encounters Liesel when he takes her younger brother. Her mother is taking the children to live with foster parents, Hans and Rosa, presumably because she is a Communist and expects to be taken into custody soon. Liesel's first book theft occurs when the grave digger's assistant drops The Grave Digger's Handbook after burying her brother. Liesel commits two more acts of book theft in the series, as well a few acts of normal theft. The normal theft brings her closer to her friend and neighbor, Rudy (who idolizes Jesse Owens to the point that he covered his body in charcoal and ran one hundred meters at the athletic field) and her book theft helps her grow closer to her foster father, the mayor's wife, a Jewish man hidden by her family, and many others.

The book's style is hit or miss, I think. In addition to the regular prose, Death interrupts the narrative frequently to add his commentary or explanation. It worked for me, though I'll admit that I did gloss over several of the bold sections. A few people seem to hate it, others seem to love it.

Interestingly enough, my main response to this book was "I really need to read Anne Frank's diary." The novel reminded me that while the German government was systemically killing millions of people, there were German citizens who didn't necessarily agree with the policies who were just trying to survive the war. Seeing people who either publicly disagreed with the government (at the beginning of the book, Liesel and her family are suffering because her foster father's painting business was failing because he repainted the door of a Jewish business that had been vandalized) or privately had doubts.

There were some wonderful, life affirming points in the book that restored my faith in the human race...and then there were moments where I shared the characters' outrage and helplessness. (Rudy and Liesel, as children, seemed to have more than their fair share of this, since they not only had to deal with the normal childhood feelings of powerlessness, but also the policies of a totalitarian government and the inequities of poverty.) The end was both heart-breaking (I felt that certain characters really should have had a chance to survive, if only because they had earned it), but also optimistic. I cried a bit at the end and I might have cried more if I hadn't been in a waiting room at the time.

I would recommend this book, if only for the interesting style. I liked it, but it didn't resonate with me as much as certain other books.


  1. Sorry this book didn't resonate with you that much. This is one of my all time favorite books though...

  2. I really did enjoy it and I think part of the reason it may not have resonated with me was that I finished it while I was waiting for a medical test, so I was a bit distracted. I think it's one of those that I'll go back to and reread because it really was an amazing work.