The Book Thief (Review)

Alison Jaquet

Issue 4, January 2007

Markus Zusak’s captivating novel, The Book Thief, embeds within its pages a multiplicity of meanings as it explores diverse ways of representing the world and its stories. The Book Thief is a novel that is at times quirky and light-hearted and at other moments, a poignant reflection upon the beauty and cruelty of human nature.

The novel is set in the shadow of World War II and follows the story of a young girl, Liesel Meminger, and her struggle for knowledge, understanding and survival. Amidst the chaos of Germany in 1939, Liesel finds solace in books and words, and in a fateful turn, begins an intrepid career in book thievery. The story is narrated from the unique perspective of Death, who is omnipresent at this juncture in history, and is an unexpectedly cheerful and witty guide for Liesel’s engaging story.

Following a series of tragedies, Liesel finds a new home near Munich with the fascinating and peculiar couple, Rosa and Hans Hubermann. Liesel, Rosa and Hans form an unlikely family in an unstable and uncertain time. When her foster father teaches her to read, Liesel’s world expands and the seed of storytelling flourishes. From here, Liesel’s world becomes saturated with texts: books, newspapers, letters, diaries and even crosswords. Liesel reads, writes, rewrites, plays, transforms and creates with words.

In The Book Thief, books and words imprint themselves on people – as books burn, cruel labels stick and words injure. However, the recuperative power of language is also revealed. During an air raid, in the homes of the bereaved and at the bedside of the ill, Liesel’s stories work to comfort and heal. Most importantly in her political context, Liesel learns how words can be used to resist.

Moreover, the pages of The Book Thief become a palimpsest. The novel emphasises that the most extraordinary stories in history are layered within the often-muted experiences of ordinary people in everyday life. Similarly, as we follow the story of Liesel’s childhood: petty theft, neighbourhood pranks and other innocent everyday events, we also perceive the traces of history: the death, persecution and fear of war.

In depicting Liesel’s journey into the enchanting and powerful world of words, Zusak’s novel insists upon the importance of individual interpretations, rewritings and representations. As we are told when Liesel steals her first book: The Gravedigger’s Handbook, “it didn’t really matter what that book was about. It was what it meant that was more important” (39). This forms a central concern of the novel: the ability for the individual to affect the course of history, to reimagine events, to rewrite meanings and to create more hopeful stories. The Book Thief is a beautiful and insightful exploration of the power of storytelling that opens up diverse meanings for its readers.