Book Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief by Markus ZusakThe Book Thief is set in Germany during the Second World War, but it is not your average war story. It is full of metaphors and symbolism, echoing the style of a fable, and it is narrated by an intriguing character – Death. Death looks on as humans do their best to destroy each other in the most horrific ways imaginable, while he is left to clear up the mess they leave in their wake. He doesn’t want to become involved, but he is drawn towards a young girl (Liesel) as she travels across Germany to meet her new foster parents, encountering Death on the way.   

Death is continuously stepping into the narrative to comment on the wider context of war, or to give the back story of a new character, or jump ahead with a clue about what is to come. There is a strong focus on the small, intricate details of life, such as the colour of the sky or the shape of clouds, helping you to see the story through Liesel’s eyes. She is young and limited in her understanding of Jewish persecution and other grown up things, but she soon begins to learn.

Illustrations in The Book Thief

This is a book which contains books – stories handwritten and illustrated by their authors

Her role as The Book Thief is both comical and deadly serious. Her early life is stricken by poverty and she is unable to read, but desperate to learn. As she begins to acquire books, a secret night-time reading class begins, and she discovers the magic of reading. But another character soon enters the novel – Max Vandenburg, the Jew. His encounter with Liesel and her foster parents will put all of them in great danger, but it is through Max that Liesel begins to learn about the world and, most importantly, about the power of friendship.

The book is crammed full of irony and humour, but it is also immensely sad, as we see the growing threat of Nazism, the power of persecution and propaganda, and the effects of war and poverty on the inhabitants of Himmel Street, where Liesel and her foster parents live. It is a book which reveals the true nature of its characters; Liesel’s foster mother Rosa is crass and strict, but kind-hearted underneath. Her foster father seems weak and pathetic but the plot soon reveals his strength and courage.

It’s also a book about the power of words. Reading her stolen books helps Liesel to grow in her understanding of the world. She begins to see how words and stories can bring hope and healing, both in her own life, and the lives of others. But it is Max who shows her that they can also be used to cause pain and humiliation and, ultimately, to destroy.

The book is full of inscriptions, announcing characters or events

The book is full of inscriptions, announcing characters or events

The style of writing is unusual, and it does take time to get used to it. I found the epitaph-like inscriptions rather irritating at first, but I did enjoy the reproductions of Max Vandenburg’s handwritten pages and illustrations, which really bring the story to life.

I made the mistake of finishing this novel in my lunch hour, returning to my desk with swollen eyes and a red nose. It is a book full of heart-breaking love and intense emotion, which is beautiful and striking, heightened by its unusual child-centred format, poetic imagery and strange narrator. In fact, it is the enigmatic voice of its unusual narrator that resonates, making this not just another war story but a breath-taking tale of life and death.

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