I’ve been meaning to read this book for years. I first picked it up in twelfth grade. I had been on a streak of Holocaust stories including The Diary of Anne Frank, Hanna’s Briefcase, and Yellow Star. It blew my mind (and still does) at the scale of destruction and death that one man managed to cause, and these stories of survival and humanity in the face of such horrors were amazing to me. The Book Thief would have shown me the war from a very different angle, had I gotten beyond the first chapter at that time.
A couple of months ago, I showed my teacher a first chapter I had written. It was all I had of what might eventually become a novel, and it was told from the perspective of the devil. My teacher quite liked it and suggested I read The Book Thief because it was narrated by Death. By now, I had completely forgotten about the first chapter I’d read years ago, but it piqued my interest and after class I went to the library and borrowed it.
Let me tell you, it was definitely worth getting through the slow first chapter to read the rest of it.
“You will never forget this book. It will make you appreciate your life to another degree.” -a note left inside the cover of the copy I got from the library
Death (the character) was not one for surprises, and as a result some might think he spoiled a lot of the ending before it was reached. I disagree. The plot and the story did not match up, but they didn’t need to. The story was one with ups and downs throughout, many subplots and major plot points were woven together, and each of these had bigger and smaller points, and if at any time you learned about a point earlier than you expected, there were still the whens and hows to wonder about and all the other plots to wait for. And just when you think your mind has been overloaded with too many things to think about, Death will take a break and tell you a bit about his two favourite things: colours of the sky, and what was happening when he collected someone.
It sounds vulgar to have a story of Nazi-Germany narrated by Death, but I think Markus Zusak used his narrator for quite the opposite effect. He turned death into a beautiful thing, almost like the wafting of smoke when a candle has been blown out. It’s hard to explain how he manages this, so I won’t and you can read it for yourself.
Even though Death is the narrator, the protagonist is Liesel Meminger, the young girl whose story Death is telling. The main story follows her from when she is 9 years old and moves to Himmel Street with her new foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, and spans over the next four or so years. She becomes best friends with the boy next door, Rudy, and soon after her arrival, the war begins. Things are fine at first, the subplots involving nothing more serious than a fight in the school yard, but then plot points start to get bigger at a steady rate. After a while, her foster parents take in a Jewish man named Max Vandenburg whom they hide in their basement. Books start burning, bombs start dropping, and it’s a steady climb to the climax. Unlike the beginning, Zusak doesn’t waste much time on bread and roses at the end. There’s an epilogue to satisfy readers, but nothing more. Not that there’s any lack of beauty. As I said, Death has a way of working that in.
Of course, I should mention the stealing. The book is called The Book Thief, but Liesel and Death are both book thieves, in a way. The story is from a book Death stole, but Liesel is the repeat offender who I think gave name to the title. Her story starts with stealing a book (sort of) and these things meet with ironic ends.
And speaking of endings, I really liked this one. It didn’t make me cry or anything (but I’m heartless, so that doesn’t really mean anything) but it was good. All the plot lines were tied up neatly with a bow, and it didn’t depend on shock to make an impact (which can be good, but I’m glad that wasn’t the case this time). Out of 554 pages, the bit that got closest to making me tear up was the second last line of page 535.
Many lines of this book have found their way onto fan-made drawings and other things, but personally, my favourites are not the quotes found on Google images. I think my favourite lines are the more mundane that Zusak made beautiful. I didn’t write them down. I think half of their beauty was in finding them myself, in the same way a tree is more beautiful in a forest. But here are a couple examples I found just flipping though:
“The smell of coffee was overpowering, and the image of Hans Hubermann’s kindness was still in the air.” pg. 407
“The glittering anger was thick and unnerving, but she toiled though it.” pg. 272
If you have any quotes from the book you particularly enjoyed, feel free to leave them in the comments.
Besides having Death for a narrator, I want to make a special mention of the creativity used in the narration. There were inserts from Death, little notes like quotes from characters including Death himself, key words, lists, dictionary definitions, character descriptions, points of reference, and nearly anything else to better explain the story. Even if I considered this a writer’s way of cheating (which it is, in a way), I think it was a great idea. It simplified a very complicated book for readers, and it was something new that I haven’t seen before. Not only were there the notes, but drawings and stories from other characters (mostly Max) can also be found inside, each making an important point that is not only relevant to the story, but to life.
This book is extremely well written and thought-out. It is a piece of art.
Have you read it? If so, what did you think of it? If not, do you intend to? Comment below!