The Book Thief (Review)

Kate Pedersen

Issue 4, January 2007

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is centred upon Liesel Meminger, who is drawn to steal books.  Liesel is a young girl living in Nazi Germany. The omniscient and sometimes amusing narrator of Liesel’s tale is Death.  Death’s narration is an interesting device, as it is neither judgmental nor overly emotional.  Death promises to tell readers a story, to show them something, and relates a bewildered description of unfolding events. 

The book thief is fascinated by words.  As an adopted child in a new town, Liesel seeks solace in the calm and unchanging words  of books she cannot read.  She thieves books, through necessity but also as a form of retribution.  Patiently, her grey-eyed foster Papa teaches Liesel to read the words in the books she collects.  Liesel is given the gift of words and through them she learns. She learns to read, trust and love. Eventually she stops stealing books, and starts creating her own. 

Zusak has previously written children’s books. His storytelling experience is evident both in Liesel’s descriptions of her own life, and in the stories presented to her by adult characters. Harboured Jew, Max, pens a charming tale for young Liesel, complete with sweet illustrations. Zusak also creates lovely imagery.  Careful descriptions of Liesel’s friend Rudy’s ‘candlelit hair’ and loyal devotion are extremely evocative. Zusak’s writing is in places whimsical, even bordering on saccharine. In this respect the structure of The Book Thief works well, as an adoring child’s feelings for her much loved Papa are peppered with Death’s detached observations. While Death is at times flippant in his work, he is both puzzled by the devastation humans visit upon each other and stirred by the young book thief.

Nazi Germany provides an extremely fertile ground for Death’s narration. While Death has seen a ‘great many things’ in the world, the book thief’s tale is quiet. Zusak exercises restraint with much of Liesel’s tale being uneventful commentary on her domestic existence.  Detailed descriptions of everyday life bring into sharp relief the extraordinary impact of war on Liesel’s sleepy German hometown.  Carefully constructed characters introduced to the reader in a relatively peaceful context are in varying ways devastated by the course of the war.  Nazism also divides Liesel’s small community as it becomes evident that ‘the enemy’ isn’t necessarily foreign.

Perhaps most of all, Zusak offers a reminder of our shared humanity.  He shows enemy soldiers rushing in futility at Death, rather than each other. Readers are granted glimpses into lives of German soldiers, persecuted Jews, mothers of soldiers, and even British soldiers. The Book Thief is a patient tale that invites readers to consider their own existence and reactions to those living in diametric circumstances. Readers of the novel may be surprised, like me, to find that they are moved by Death’s slow portrait of the book thief.