Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Review: The Book Thief

Markus Zusak
Knopf Books for Young Readers
Narrated by Death, The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl living with foster parents in Nazi Germany. Liesel, who watches her younger brother die on a train at the start of the novel, steals books (hence the title) and has an affinity for words, prompted in part by her loving foster father who teaches her to read late at night. The book takes place during the Holocaust however since the focus is on a German girl living in a small town, it has a decidedly different feel than most Holocaust fiction I've read.

To be honest, this is one book I almost didn't finish. At the fifty page mark I was still pretty uninterested and was finding the narration of Death a bit confusing. Luckily a Twitter friend told me to stick it out, and I'm glad I did as it quickly became apparent that Death is the most appropriate narrator for this story that takes place during World War 2. The third-person, sort-of-omniscient point of view allows for a wider story than we'd otherwise get. Leisel's foster father is one of the few men who doesn't belong to the Nazi Party and because of this he finds it difficult to get work as a painter, making their family one of the poorest in an already-poor neighborhood. The war and the realities of the Nazi regime hit close to home when Liesel and her foster family hide a Jewish man in their basement. This divides Leisel's life into two distinct parts: the part she plays outside of the home as she attends Hitler Youth, plays soccer with the neighborhood friends, and occasionally steals books from the mayor's house, and the life she has at home as she makes friends with the Jew and reads her stolen books to him.

For me the story arc involving the hidden Jew was the real heart of this book and as the story widened to include Liesel's friends and neighbors, their various histories, and the war itself it became obvious why Death was an actual character in this book and why it was chosen to be the narrator. For even at the happiest, brightest moments in Liesel's life there's a sense of dread as the reader knows -- even if the characters don't -- that there are many unseen horrors happening and that they will, as we are repeatedly told, eventually come to Munich Street. There's a legitimate sense of dread and foreboding in this incredibly powerful book. 

And it is both powerful and beautiful as a story not only of the Holocaust, but of the extraordinary feats -- both terrible and amazingly good -- that humans are capable of. Liesel, her foster parents (especially her father), and her best friend Rudy are the primary characters whose capacity for goodness is extraordinary, and I feel odd voicing the problems with this book because it is, for the most part, one of the best books I've read on this period of history.

However, things started to fall apart for me about 400 pages into this 550 page tome. Whereas previously there had been a great focus on story and characters, which conveyed the ideas and -- dare I say it? -- morals of the story very well, the narration started to seem overly verbose, almost wandering into "purple prose" territory. We are told, instead of shown, the power that words have. There's a romanticism of words, the narrator's own words in particular, that doesn't quite fit the rest of the book and had me feeling as if the book were going on much longer than it should have. The story, as its narrater drifted into the future and continually reminded us what was going to happen, seemed to drift away and I kept waiting for the narration and story to meet up again. This did happen, but not until the very end of the book -- at which point, despite all the spoilers Death had given us, I still cried.

This book is incredibly powerful. For the most part it's amazing. However, there's a romanticism and idealization of words within it that doesn't sit well with me considering the subject matter. I felt that it was almost too beautiful and too concerned with its own beauty considering all of the horrific stories it contained.


  1. Great review, very interesting for me to get a different perspective because basically all I can do is rave about this book - I just found it unbelievably beautiful and, for me, flawless. Words are romanticised but that's one of the things I loved about it - especially because Zusak's prose is so exquisite itself. I can see that maybe that's not for everyone though - I'm glad you stuck it out and liked it overall!

  2. I had the same reaction as you at the beginning of the novel - the first chapter had me reeling a little because of Death's prose. But, once I got past that first chapter it seemed to go much more smoothly. This is easily my all-time favorite book. :)

  3. Belle
    Yeah, I know a lot of people have the same opinion as you in regards this book, which may be part of the reason I was initially wary of it. I'd started reading I AM THE MESSENGER years ago and never finished it (wayyy to confusing) and was a little worried that this one would go the same way. Luckily it didn't, but I also didn't find it quite as great as everyone else did.

    Yep, I'm so glad I read beyond that rough beginning because it does get so much better.

  4. Interesting review for sure, I have to say I am definitely in the group of people who loved this book, but I do sorta see where you are coming from and perhaps if I read it again I would pick up on more of what you are saying.