I’d heard many good things about Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief but it wasn’t until I saw an advert for the film adaptation that I remembered I wanted to read it. There was a long wait for this at the library (perhaps a testament to how popular the book is?) so I was looking forward to reading it when I was finally able to borrow it.
Narrated by Death, The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel, a young girl growing up in Germany during World War II. Liesel impulsively steals a book one day, and when her foster father Hans teaches her to read, her love for words and reading begins. Living with her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann in a town just outside Munich, she carves out a life for herself against the backdrop of war.
I like reading books set in or affected by war, but what I liked about The Book Thief was that even though it was set during a period of destruction and intense change, the children are just children. Particularly in the beginning chapters, there’s a focus on playing games and having fun, and although they’re deprived and starving due to the war, they’re having fun as children. I found it interesting reading the book as an adult who’s learnt about the war, seeing the fear in the adult characters but not necessarily in the children – it’s just a part of their life now. Yet as the book continues and the war progresses, you begin to see them affected more.
The setting of the war will always mean there are moving scenes and there are many in The Book Thief – I found scenes with Liesel, Max, Hans, and best friend Rudy particularly touching, as were Max’s stories for her. I found the scenes near the end of the book desperately sad, and it wasn’t until I reached this stage of the book that I realised how much the story had affected me, and how attached I’d got to the characters.
The characters are an important part of the novel, and most of them are fully and richly created, from Rosa and Hans to the mayor’s wife and Rudy. I actually found myself enjoying reading more about them than I did Liesel – I wanted to learn more about their pasts and how they got to be where they are now. The Book Thief is Liesel’s story so it’s not exactly a surprise that we don’t find out more about them, but I think it says something that I found them to be more intriguing than the title character.
Having the novel narrated by Death is an original concept by Zusak and one which adds an interesting edge to the story. At times, though, I didn’t feel that the story needed to be narrated in this way – it was strong and compelling enough to stand on its own and I feel I might have been able to connect with Liesel sooner if she was telling the story instead of it coming from Death. While chapters given to Death are short and infrequent, I also found that they interrupted the flow of the story for me. Yet, it is a unique and original way to tell a story from this period of history.
I enjoyed Zusak’s writing style in The Book Thief. The prose is inventive and easy to read, while the language is playful, with fun and original descriptions. While these were beautiful, sometimes I did find myself questioning what they actually meant – one example near the end of the book is “breakfast coloured sun”. Although this is a lovely and unique description, I’m struggling to picture exactly what Zusak means.
The Book Thief isn’t just a book about a young girl growing up in World War II. It’s a book about love and loss, childhood and friendship, death and hope, war and destruction, family and survival, and words and books. It’s a good read and one I’d recommend if you haven’t already had a chance to pick it up. It isn’t my favourite book, but it’s a moving and thought provoking story that’s told in an inventive way.