The other night I finished reading the final pages of The Book Thief (2005) by Markus Zusak. I absolutely love this book and I think it has actually becomes one of my favourites of all time. It took me a fair few chapters to get used to the narrative style but after a while I couldn’t put it down. The characters, storyline and messages are so moving and the way that the story is told is intriguing and original.
A book narrated by death. Thinking of the idea would have been easier than actually pulling it off, but Markus Zusak is consistent in the creation of his narrative voice and the result is a story quite unlike any other. Zusak creates a character out of death and it really works for the story.
It is also an incredibly sad notion because of the time period and the amount of people that died. He actually doesn’t present death as a villain, however, but more of creature that has no choice in its role in the world. At times, death is weighed down by its responsibility to take people from their lives, describing itself as tired and, on the final page, as…
“…haunted by humans” – The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
In a publication from Pan Macmillan titled Markus Zusak talks about the writing of The Book Thief, the author explains that he originally represented death as a sinister character that enjoyed the taking of lives. However, he wrote “When I took a break from the book, I was sitting down on the back step and it hit me that Death should actually be afraid…of us. The irony of this was exciting, and it made perfect sense.”
For some of the characters, death is an escape from the unsafety and heartbreak which hovered amongst German lands during that period. The descriptions of the way death takes souls from people’s bodies when it is their time to die is eerie and poignant.
I enjoyed the way the narrative included bits of lots of different characters stories. Although the main focus is on Liesel Meminger for a majority of the book, death also includes the background and present narrative of several other characters. For example, the story of how Max Vandenburg made his way to Himmel Street or what happens to Hans Hubermann when he is forced to leave his family to join the armed forces. We see a variety of different perspectives because the overruling spectator sees all.
Zusak creates some of the richest and most beautiful characters I have ever read. Liesel Meminger is a deep thinker and she reacts so interestingly to the trials that life offers her in the story. She looks for a lesson in everything and grows so much as a character across the pages. She is young and innocent, but she is very strong, a fierce character who can stand up for herself.
At times she does not know just how strong she is. In one particular chapter, her powerful emotions get the better of her when she beats up a boy at school. But, she is in no way a malicious character. She is passionate and may have a little bit of a short fuse, especially as the boy was insulting her inability to read which is something that becomes very important to her.
She is a sweet and funny character, many scenes with her parents make me smile and laugh. She is also cheeky and mischievous, for example, when it comes to moments of thievery and teasing her best friend, Rudy Steiner.
Her story is emotional and powerful. Her love for reading and books is inspiring, especially because she doesn’t even know how to read at the beginning. She is determined to learn in any way she can and this is also something that brings her closer to her new papa, Hans Hubermann.
The Hubermann’s are Liesel’s foster parents. The three of them become such a strong family, which I think is one of the key themes in the book. The relationship between Liesel and her papa is particularly moving, from the way he sits with her after nightmares woke her up as a young girl, to the way he trusts and treats her like someone much older than her years.
Hans is a caring father figure, who would do anything to protect his family. He is a loyal and good man and he shows this through the keeping of a very old promise as well as his actions during certain moments in the book, for example, when he offers bread to the marching Jews.
Max Vandenburg is an equally caring character. His friendship with Liesel is so endearing and infectious to read, you just can’t stop. We really get a sense of the hard times Max has faced as well as his fear. Zusak does not hold back from demonstrating how dangerous it was to be a Jew in Nazi Germany. The chapter where the soldiers come to inspect the basement is so intense and I was almost holding my breath. And that’s when you realise how unfair the whole situation in Germany was. How is Max any different to the soldier he hides from?
Also, the way Zusak describes the marching parades of the Jews is very detailed and effective. We understand the pain and injustice suffered by the Jews during this time. It is particularly effective in the chapter when Liesel recognises Max in the crowd and will not let go of his arm. It is such an emotional moment and makes such a statement about Nazi Germany.
Finally, I would like to talk about Rudy Steiner. He is such a brilliant character who has an air of being carefree and fearless. He made me smile a lot throughout the book and he is another character who knows how to stand up for himself. For example, he refuses to let his Hitler Youth leader push them around.
I really enjoyed all the lighter scenes, for examples, the fruit/potato stealing and the football games in the street outside their homes. Rudy is often the centre of these scenes and we get to know him as the kind and loyal best friend, always at Liesel’s side, even when they come to face difficult times.
The strength of the characters in this book are what makes the story so true.
The messages in this book are so strong and important. I won’t say too much about this because I really think you should just read the book to experience the full effect of them. The message about the strength of words and the link to how Hitler used them is so powerful. Liesel uses words for both hurt and for love and by the end she becomes angry at the words. She realises their strength and becomes afraid of them before returning to them to write her own story.
I love the book thievery and Rudy’s name for Liesel as the “book thief“. I also really enjoyed the development of the part of the story involving the Mayor’s wife, Ilsa Hermann, and the way Liesel pays regular visits to what becomes her personal library. Ilsa’s backstory and her past traumas are another part of the story that shows everyone has heartache in their past and everyone has their own ways of dealing with it.
I could honestly talk about this book forever, I love it so much! I did just want to talk about the air raid scenes in the basements which is always something that seems like it would have been more terrifying than you can even imagine. We will never know what it was like for those people, to sit and do nothing but wait, expecting a bomb to fall on them during each and every passing second. Liesel’s reading has a calming effect during these chapters, on both the characters and the reader. These are such powerful and important scenes and I think Zusak made them very effective.
As a final, I just want to mention how much I enjoyed the illustrations and Max’s written works within the book. There are such strong messages in these stories and the illustrations made me fall further in love with the character who had drawn them.
A beautiful, sad and moving story set within a strong depiction of Nazi Germany and narrated from an original perspective.
I am going to give this book 5/5.