Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on January 12, 2014
I avoided this book for a long time, because I knew it was narrated by Death, and that sounded like a depressingly morbid proposition to me. I couldn't have been more wrong. Zusak's rendering of Death is one of the most likable narrators it has ever been my pleasure to encounter. In THE BOOK THIEF, Death is no black-hooded figure wielding a vicious scythe, he (it?) is a thoroughly decent chap. While he might affect a professional distance from the human beings with whom he comes into contact, the truth is that he is not immune to emotion. He tries to maintain a healthy lack of interest in what he calls "... the contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water." He is pithy, sarcastic, and ironic at the expense of humans, attempting to caricature them to save his own sanity. But once in a very long while, a special person will break through Death's defenses and focus his attention on the curious creatures whose souls he escorts, sooner or later, from this mortal coil. One such special person is a little German girl named Liesel Meminger.
Death first encounters Liesel when her little brother dies on a train journey on which the children's mother has taken them to deliver them to their new foster parents. Liesel thus loses her brother as well as her mother, but after her brother's funeral, she finds something half-buried in the snow - a gravedigger's handbook. Not really knowing why, she steals the book and takes it with her to her new foster home. When she first opens it, a little bit of everyday magic occurs: "Amplified by the still of night, the book opened - a gust of wind." This begins a tangled web whose common thread is the redemptive power of the written word. You who are reading this, are you not a book lover like Liesel, like me? And if so, have you never been saved by books, like Liesel, like me? Then be kind to yourself, make Liesel's acquaintance, read THE BOOK THIEF.
Many other reviews have recounted THE BOOK THIEF's general storyline, so I will only say, briefly, that it is the story of a little girl growing up in Hitler's Germany during the Second World War, cared for by her foster parents, soft-hearted Hans Hubermann and his gruff but ultimately kind wife, Rosa. It is the story of Liesel's friendships with Rudy, the boy next door, and with Max, the young Jewish man hiding in the Hubermanns' basement. It is the story of the books Liesel steals - from graveyards, from Nazi book burnings, from the library of the mayor's wife - and the comfort they bring to Liesel and, occasionally, to her friends and neighbors. THE BOOK THIEF covers many important themes, most notably death in all its forms - from dead brothers to dead sons to dead letters - as well as the struggle for survival, survivors' guilt, secrets and lies, sanity and madness.
The content of THE BOOK THIEF's plot makes it a profoundly moving tale, and if anyone manages to make it to the end of the book without at least some spontaneous moistening of the eyes, they should immediately check themselves for a pulse. But THE BOOK THIEF is more than just a profoundly moving tale, it is an extraordinary work of twenty-first century art. What is it that tips the balance? What makes THE BOOK THIEF not just a great book but a masterpiece? It is everything that the book does differently. It is the narrator, it is the language, it is even the layout. But above all, it is the very different perspectives it offers of Hitler's Germany. And if this all sounds very serious, it's not - except for when it is. What sets THE BOOK THIEF apart is its playfulness ... And in the end, what turns it into a masterpiece is the juxtaposition of this playfulness against events of the utmost solemnity.
As THE BOOK THIEF's narrator, Death is, as I have said, unique in the true sense of the word, and in the best sense of the word. The reader's first encounter with his sense of humor elicits first jaw-dropping astonishment and then a growing sense of delicious wonder that eventually settles into an eager camaraderie. Early in the book, I found myself completely disarmed by such offhand but, to put it mildly, droll sentences as: "A bathrobe answered the door." As mentioned, even the layout plays a major role in the uniqueness of this book. The most important information throughout the book, whether it be the truth about the nature of Death as a supernatural being, the choices Liesel faces at crucial points in the story, or the meanings of derogatory German epithets, is presented in bold-type, center-aligned, compact, omniscient form (virtually dot points without the dots), which frees the rest of the narrative up to skip along and relate only the most poignant or most whimsical or most humorous events.
As I have suggested, the most important thing about THE BOOK THIEF is its unusual perspectives. By and large, we are used to reading stories from a human adult perspective. What makes THE BOOK THIEF initially so unsettling and then so enchanting is that this point of view is never offered. Instead, the story is told mostly from the non-human perspective of Death, who also takes into account the child's perspective of the main protagonist, Liesel. Liesel is, after all, the special human child who managed to break through the narrator's emotional barriers and inspire him to want to tell her story. So it is only fitting that much of the book is turned over to the perspective of a child's wisdom. The plot of THE BOOK THIEF is, in fact, quite reminiscent of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. It is told, more or less, from a child's perspective; it involves a close friendship with the kid next door; Liesel is a plucky fist fighter like Scout; treasures are left for Liesel in a specific place (an open window); Liesel's "papa" fights a righteous but hopeless fight for a man condemned by the prejudice of the era; and Liesel is even made to read to an elderly neighbor. And just as Jean-Louise Finch gave us a child's-eye view of the unjust trial of a black man in America's Deep South in the 1930s, Liesel Meminger gives us a child's-eye view of Nazi Germany in the Second World War. But don't mistake a "child's-eye view" for a childish view - Liesel is even more canny and worldly than Scout is. Certainly, she reminds us that children have their own concerns, desires, failures, and triumphs, no matter what their political surroundings, so even at the height of wartime atrocities, when everything goes right for Liesel, "The day had been a great one, and Nazi Germany was a wondrous place." But at the same time, she knows full well what her beloved foster parents and her friend Max, the Jew hiding in their basement, are up against, and she knows: "You hide a Jew. You pay. Somehow or other, you must."
As well as making way for the story of a wise child named Liesel Meminger, the chunks of information scattered throughout THE BOOK THIEF are basically the narrator's way of saying: "I know what you want to know and are expecting to hear, so here it is. And now that we've got that out of the way, I can tell the story as I see it." And in making way for this story as Death sees it, we are given not just an excellent, moving plot but something literally extraordinary. One of the perks of being an immortal being, for example, is that you have a much more elastic sense of time, and Death uses this to great effect in telling Liesel's story. The constant stopping and starting of the story in the beginning is unsettling, but in a way, it matches how unsettled and fragmented Liesel is. As the story progresses and focuses, the narrative style settles and intensifies, too. In what we might see as Death's most audacious narrative act, but which he treats with calm nonchalance, he reveals, well before the event, when one of the story's central characters will die. While he says he realizes that readers may feel like he's spoiled the ending, that's not the important part, it's everything that happens in between that matters. Yes, the book comes complete with its own spoilers! But it is a sign of the author's brilliance that rather than, as the term suggests, spoiling the story, these revelations actually make it so very much more poignant.
Markus Zusak has done something exceptional with THE BOOK THIEF, something that has justly earned him accolades from one end of the world to the other, from critics and ordinary readers, from teenagers and octogenarians. In using such previously under-utilized and unusual narrative perspectives, he has allowed himself the scope to really play with language, with narrative, and with story. And in creating such a unique narrator, he has been able to share with us whole new concepts of life and death. Yes, Death displays a razor-sharp wit, a finely honed sense of irony, and an always-surprising sense of humor, but in the end, it is his moments of stunning solemnity that I will never forget. As Liesel is watching a group of Jews being force-marched along the road to Dachau, Death quietly mentions: "They watched the Jews come down the road ... many of them would die. They would each greet me like their last true friend, with bones like smoke and their souls trailing behind." And when Death can no longer evade the question of what he really thinks of human beings, he says simply: "... I'm always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both. Still, they have one thing I envy. Humans, if nothing else, have the good sense to die." I wonder if anyone will disagree with me when I say that writing like that is only found in a masterpiece.