The Book Thief, among other things, is a tribute to the love of books and the power of words set on a backdrop of Nazi Germany. Oh, and it’s narrated by Death.
Written by Australian author Markus Zusak and first published in 2005, The Book Thief has won numerous awards and was listed on the The New York Times Best Seller list for over 230 weeks.
The book follows the story of Liesel Meminger, a German girl born in 1929 and, during the events of this story in World War II Germany; she is in her early teenage years. From the opening scenes we see that she is sent to live with a foster family and right before that she witnesses her younger brother’s death. That is when Death first meets Liesel.
Having Death as a narrator made for a very interesting point of view, and I was impressed by how the author was keen on showing how Death only knew things that he witnessed himself and didn’t use Death as a narrator just to make it easy for him, the author, to describe things or give back stories.
The story takes a close look at what it meant to be a German citizen, in Nazi Germany, while not actually accepting Nazi practices. But don’t let that deter you from picking up this book just because you are not interested in this particular angle of things because this story is about so much more. Nazi Germany is no more than a backdrop to tell a tale of human suffering and human endurance in the face of calamity and distress.
Liesel forges a very strong bond with her foster father, Hans Hubermann, who, among many life lessons he bestows upon Liesel, teaches her to read. She starts stealing books to find solace and meaning among all the suffering she is living through. Cold, hunger and violence are things she witnesses regularly just as we complain about heat and humidity in the summer.
Hans Hubermann, for me, was an even more interesting and touching character than Liesel. Up until the final pages that was! Because that was when Liesel’s story all came together in one fine, moving ending. Hans is a great father figure, and being a father myself, I was deeply touched by the scenes with him and Liesel together as he comforted her, played with her and just plain was being a father to her, and I am sure any father who reads this book will agree too.
There is a medium-sized ensemble of characters, which doesn’t make it hard to follow, but not all of them are as developed and engaging as Liesel and Hans.
The book pulls you into the story pretty quickly but close to half-way through it slows down. I must admit, at that point, I wasn’t liking the book much. But the language was easy and it read quickly so I kept going. By the final one hundred pages or so, I was rewarded for my perseverance. I read through them with no interruptions, blocking out all sounds around me. I smiled. My eyes welled up and, for a reason still unknown to me, I felt changed by this story of this little book thief. And people, when a book leaves you with a feeling that you are not the same person you were before reading it, then that is a good book.
The Book Thief is available in paperback and runs a little over 550 pages, but the ease of the language will make it quite a quick read; it took me less than a week to finish.
This book review first appeared in Society Magazine, distributed monthly with The Gulf Times in Doha, Qatar. Check out their PDF archive here.