Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

2 January, 2014 Reviews 10 comments

Review: The Book Thief by Markus ZusakThe Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
Series: Standalone
Published by Knopf on 18th December 2007
Pages: 560
Genres: Fantasy, Historical, Young Adult
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased
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five-stars

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 thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help 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.

The subject matter of The Book Thief is heavy.  So, so heavy.  And so one has to wonder how best to address it.

Zusak has crafted a story of words, a tale of the weight that such innocuous shapes can have.  He writes with a love of the letter that the bibliophile can appreciate, and his characters, too, display an adoration and respect for the power of writing that readers can immediately relate to.

Letters in their endless permutations have almost a physical presence within this novel, and it’s a fascinating thing to witness.  These individuals do not simply say or whisper their dialogue.  Rather, they employ them as concrete objects to be handled with care.  Zusak repeatedly describes conversation as exchanges being flung, dropped, and placed.  Words are the world, and must be pieced together responsibility.  Because once they are let loose, there is no taking them back, and their impact is enduring.

The approach can be attributed partially, of course, to the unique ghoulishness of The Book Thief‘s narrator, incorporeal and transcendental as he is.  Having a story of the Holocaust be told by Death: Clever or distasteful?  I haven’t the authority to answer such a question, nor do I think that there is a definite response to it.  Personally, I found it an intriguing approach, from the easy malleability with which he treats time, to his detailing of the metaphysics of death and the human soul, to his gentle arrogance towards the limits of the reader and the things that one cannot possibly know.  It’s different, it’s odd, and it worked for me.

And yet, as with everything in this novel, it may very well not do the same for you.  Because what can be assuredly said for a story that takes artistic license with one of the greatest tragedies in human history?  Certainly, the tale is a touching one, and its characters are capably drawn:

Liesel is compelling and likeable at the forefront, real in a powerful way.  Hans and Rosa are both inspiring as loyal guardians and loving familial figures.  Max displays a sweetness and compassion that makes his and Liesel’s relationship a thing of joy and comfort.  Tommy provides a humor and buoyancy that brightens the gloom of Nazi Germany and the grimness of its oppressive atmosphere.

As we watch Liesel grow, as a stealer of books and as a girl of unlikely circumstance, the story darkens and grows taught, but keeps intact the beauty inherent to the characters and the ways in which they interact.  There is love and kindness in these unassuming people, and a tremendous courage in the face of hopeless odds and insurmountable opposition.  Zusak makes these otherwise small lives extraordinary against a backdrop of unimaginable magnitude, and so their comings and goings are infused with an aura of devastation and despair regardless of what they may be doing.

Because we know, even if Liesel does not.

And so we have a story that uses real-world genocide as a means of creating drama with fabricated faces and selling a manuscript for the enjoyment of the masses.  How does one take that?  After all, this book does not strive for strict realism.  From its macabre storyteller to its simplifying of the cast to the basics of the “good vs. evil” archetype, it is clear fiction that exploits, regardless of authorial intention, the complexities and horrors of millions.  Is it a call to remember the evils that humanity is capable of, lest history repeat itself?  To understand the selflessness that these selfsame creatures can show?  Is it a cash-grab using a premise that is known to sell, helped along by the gimmicky exploitation of a unique narrator that – let’s be honest, here – was ultimately not necessary?

Because, really, the lack of linearity and the waxing poetic of the passing of souls is not strictly integral to telling this narrative of a girl and her books.  Death’s consistent critique of the human race is preachy, and is required only due to the otherworldliness of the character.  And outright telling us of the deaths of certain individuals may seem like some kind of clever manipulation of the typical writing process, but can also function baldly as an obvious attempt to manipulate the reader’s feelings.

That is what ultimately makes me wonder.  All storytelling is manipulation, but when it is done clearly – and, truly, at all – with the very real tragedies of the past, the practice feels a sordid one, and things become murky indeed.  Profit from pain, in the end.

For all of that, though, The Book Thief is at its core a story, and it is a good one.  It touched me despite its unsettling context and emotional puppetry.  Zusak is an adept writer who uses words to great effect, and I love what he has done here.

I simply do not know what to do with that opinion.  Because the question remains: What can, and should, be taken away from a book with such a context?

I am at a loss.

 

To Conclude…

The Book Thief is an excellent book in its own right, well-written and telling a beautiful story.  But what to make of it in regards to its place, fictional though it may be, in history?

I am simply offering my thoughts on the matter.  I do not claim to be some expert upon the subject who has provided here an argument to be taken to heart by those who read it.  I am wondering aloud inquisitives that like as not do not have a clear solution.  Perhaps that marks this as excellent literature.  Perhaps it does not.  All that I can know for certain is that it makes it an important one, for better or for worse.

Paul Beimers

Paul Beimers

Reviewer at Cuddlebuggery
A reviewer, blogger and trope enthusiast who isn't nearly as consistent with his reading as he should be.

10 Responses to “Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak”

  1. Kathryn

    What a beautifully written review! I’ve been thinking about reading the Book Thief for a while now, but having read your review I feel that I need to read it soon!

  2. Arshia
    Twitter:

    I seems like you liked the book in terms of the usual stuff– prose, characters, plot and all that, but don’t quite know what to feel about it in the larger scope of things?
    I’ve wanted to read this book for a while. I just don’t know if it’s for me. I’m at a loss when I read books written as one huge metaphor with some secret message hidden in them :/

  3. Nova Lee @ Out of Time
    Twitter:

    This review was written in such an amazing way. I can’t even. I can’t even comprehend what your idea of a beautiful prose is with that kind of writing yourself. I have heard so many mixed things about this book and with your review… I am two times as excited as I was before for the book and the movie!

    Ah-mazing review! <333

    – Nova

  4. Shannelle C.
    Twitter:

    I’ve always enjoyed your reviews, Paul! They’re always so in-depth, and you just analyze everything in such a beautiful way.

    I never really thought about The Book Thief’s context in this way, and I just feel disturbed now. I liked it, but after reading your review, it bothers me that I’m liking something based on an event that caused so much suffering for people.

  5. Annie
    Twitter:

    I think the gift we have in stories is to remember the past but also to see in it a perspective we lack. I think Marcus Zusak does an admirable of connecting the reader to the harsh reality of that time – the precariousness of human life, the moments that were dark and terrifying and the things that were hard but in the midst of it life still went on and people woke up every day and went to work when they could and had to eat. I think he evokes the reality of that time and I think the fantastical elements he uses in his story serve that emotional and physical reality rather than detract from it. I also don’t think the fact that money is made from his book makes the story or the subject matter sordid in any way. Steven Spielberg also plenty of money from Schindler’s List and people understand that it’s a story worth telling and a time worth remembering and both Spielberg and Zusak, I feel, handle their material with respect and a valuable perspective.

  6. Lauren's Loquacious Literature

    I’ve never heard anyone questioning the morality of the novel. Everyone I’ve spoken to has raved about how amazing and brilliant and thought provoking and all that stuff but what you’ve said is quite interesting.

    I know that Zusak said that it was inspired by stories from his family and that he didn’t think it would get published, which certainly changes my outlook on the story itself.

    But if I ever do get round to reading it, I think I’ll be thinking about what you’ve said the entire time.
    Lauren’s Loquacious Literature recently posted…Froi of the Exiles (Chronicles of Lumatare #2) by Melina MarchettaMy Profile

  7. Ella

    I have to say, even though this is a well-written and thoughtful review, I disagree. The book, to me, neither tried to cover the massive tragedy, nor give a straightforward story. It was giving a perspective that hasn’t been explored very much: inside Nazi Germany. But despite this, it is, as you pointed out, the story of a girl and her books. I personally found this way of telling it intriguing.
    You also disliked the narration from Death, although I found that part well done also. This was one of the only aspects that gave the reader a more realistic grasp on the scope of things. All of those ordinary people, if they had been real, would likely have died as they did in the story. Death knows.
    Lastly, my own personal thought:
    We know very little about the characters. The only backstory Zusak gave was Herr Hubermann’s, and even then only back to the First World War. It’s not a major problem, but I always enjoy feeling like I ‘know’ the characters a bit more. This especially seemed to be lacking with Max. We barely even know his personality beyond his being a friend to Liesel.
    I apologize for disagreeing, but I felt the need to put my thoughts out there
    🙂

  8. Sam De Lemos

    The narrative had a few different takes for me. As a Jew, I can identify with the mindless absurdity of a persecuting society. Understanding that, within a persecuting society, there will always be people who act righteously, forgoing the trap of hating indiscriminately.

    As far as holocaust movies go, they are predictable. The genre is overdone and is becoming precariously close to becoming cliched.

    That being said, The Book Thief, changes the over emphasized paradigm through it’s otherworldly narration and focus on Liesel’s aryan character who inadvertently adapts Jewish concepts about words.

    I found the central theme of the narrative to be centered on words. As a poet, that spoke to me, on a very intrinsic level. Poets rely on words to convey important personal, philosophical, rhetorical and emotional messages. Words, are also a absolutely important to Judaism, after all God spoke to us in the language of men—words that we can understand. “We are only as good as our WORD”, explains Leisel’s father. Max’s poetic conversation with Leisel about the importance of words and how each thing that exist in the world is affixed to a word i.e., meaning—is very powerful.

    The message of capturing the narrative of Leisel’s journey, becomes the the central theme of the book. The complexity of Leisel’s analphabetic beginning, but sensitive and determined spirit to learn to read. Juxtaposed with the book burnings is a strong metaphor about value and sanctity.

    For Leisel and literally for Jews, the desecration of books is akin to blasphemy. She learns this lesson by her illiteracy struggles and appreciation shes learned through reading with her father and conversations with Max. They help her enter into a new exciting world where she can find solace.

    In Judaism, we bury books, they are sacred. Leisel intuitively learns that lesson. Books becomes her salvation. Telling her story became her purpose. The narrator values Leisel’s journey, as even he is described by words.

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