The Book Thief Review

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: My Review

Rating: 5/5 stars

There were certainly some rounds to be made that year, from Poland to Russia to Africa and back again. You might argue that I make the rounds no matter what year it is, but sometimes the human race likes to crank things up a little. They increase the population of bodies and their escaping souls. A few bombs usually do the trick. Or some gas chambers, or the chitchat of some faraway guns. If none of that finishes proceedings, it at least strips people of their living arrangements, and I witness the homeless everywhere. They come after me as I wander through the streets of molested cities. They beg me to take them with me, not realising I'm too busy at is is. 

This book completely took my breath away. I can safely say this is now one of my favourite books of all time; the writing is quite honestly sublime and Zusak's stunningly-crafted characters will stay imprinted on my memory for a long long time. 

This is not an ordinary WW2 story, primarily due to the fact the author made the deviant choice to make Death the narrator of Liesel's story rather than Liesel recounting her own life. Of course, this is somewhat logical as, for Liesel's story to make sense, the reader must have some contextual awareness of the occurrences around her in Poland, Russia and other parts of Germany, details she had no way of knowing when she was writing her book. But Death does far more than simply aiding Liesel in conveying her opinions and experiences of the Holocaust - he introduces a totally unique perspective on war and humanity during one of the most devastating periods of history that we as humans may never have considered before. 

I feel like a lot of people may struggle to get to grips with the narration of The Book Thief; Death brings a lot of dark, condescending humour to an incredibly gloomy matter, while also constantly spoiling events that happen later on in the book so we know a bit about which characters are going to die. Yes, this may ruin the shock factor for many readers, but for me it only heightened my anticipation and dread in a way that I can only imagine must be reflective of how it felt for people during the war, knowing they are bound to die or lose loved ones. 

Death is rendered vividly as a lonely being who has a lot of time to contemplate human nature and and the colours of the world, struggling to decipher how humans can be capable of so much ugliness and so much beauty at the same time. However, while his narration often focuses in on his perception of humans, he also works to correct humans' perception of him, revealing that he does actually have a heart, that he isn't the Grim Reaper figure we all picture and that he is, in fact, quite human. Zusak also uses the voice of Death to set straight the old adage that war and death are best friends, but really war is like a boss constantly at Death's shoulder, demanding more and more, and Death is fatigued and incredibly haunted by what humans do to each other because he is on hand for all our greatest miseries.

I think the main reason why this book struck such a personal chord with me was because of its hugely powerful message about how words and storytelling are what help us cope during the worst of times. Liesel is a German child living a child's life of football in the street, stolen pleasures, sudden passions and a full heart while around her bombs drop, maimed veterans hang themselves, bereaved parents move like ghosts and the dirty skeletons of Jews are paraded through the town. What allows her to cope with all of this is learning to read (and steal) books, which is also the main thing that connects her with Max, the Jew that the Hubermann's hid in their basement, and allows them to build up such a strong heartwrenching friendship. Nazi Germany was a time and place where words had never been more important; it was Hitler's talent as an orator that enabled him to indoctrinate the whole nation and manipulate its people to violate, discriminate and even massacre other human beings. On the other hand, the people who disagree with him did not possess such a strong influence of words to make a stand - any book that opposed Hitler's regime was burned. Still, the main character Liesel stole some of that power. She stole a book. She unintentionally fought back Hitler’s regime. Her actions are a continual refusal to give up words and the good that they can do.

No one can ignore the strong influence that language has on human actions. Words can erupt in violence or bring peace. The same words can be used to create a dictatorship that calls for racial superiority and discrimination or a US constitution that calls for equality and tolerance. I think my favourite part of The Book Thief is how Max and Leisel paint over the pages of Mein Kampf, erasing Hitler's nasty words and replacing them with their own stories which Liesel ends up reading to the crowds of terrified German citizens huddled in the air raid shelter, bringing peace and comfort to an entirely uncomfortable situation. 

However hard I may try I don't think any review I write could possibly do justice to such a stunning work of historical fiction that made me cry harder than I ever have when reading a book. Markus Zusak is quite honestly a genius and I love The Book Thief with all of my heart. 


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