Author: Markus Zusak
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publishing Date: March 2016
Number of Pages: 550
Genre: Historical, Young Adult
“It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath death has never been busier, and will become busier still.
Liesel Meminger finds her life changed when she unearths a single object from the snow. It is The Grave Digger’s Handbook, left there by accident at her brother’s funeral, and it is her first act of book thievery.
But these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jewish man in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened up and closed down.”
When I watched The Book Thief’s film adaptation a couple of years aback, I was barely impressed. It was too bleak but the ending made an impression. It was a clichéd take on Nazi Germany retold in a different perspective. This made me apprehensive about buying and reading the book. But because of the book’s immense popularity, I just had to go for it, hoping that it will give me a different appreciation of the story, in stark contrast with its film adaptation.
And it certainly did leave a lasting impact.
Liesel Meminger is the eponymous book thief and is also the book’s primary heroine. The adopted daughter of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, her young brother died while they were on the train going to the Hubermanns. When his brother was unceremoniously buried, Liesel picked up a book, The left behind by the grave diggers. This began her series of “book thievery”. This has also set into motion her series of adventures and misadventures with her new family, her best friend Rudy Steiner, and a certain Jew named Max Vandenburg.
Just like the movie, I wasn’t too keen on the book. Basically, establishing a a rhythmic reading pattern was a huge challenge. As was my issue with Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, the pacing was a bit troubling, especially at the start. The story was in too much of a hurry, hence, it was a little too exhausting. It was only midway through the story that I was able to establish a well-balanced and harmonious reading pattern, and when I did, it slowly transformed into an all-together different experience.
“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.” ~ Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
War, Friendship, Freedom and Love
World War II is widely portrayed in literature. The number of books I read over the past two years depicting it is a testament to this. It becomes imperative for writers to find unique ways to relate their stories. In this aspect, The Book Thief is a world apart with its unusual and sinister narrator, that unseen entity but we all fear, Death. It is an unusual choice and Zusak himself was a bit apprehensive with his choice. But Zusak simply put it this way – War is death’s best friend. This unusual take on the story changed its complexion, adding a tinge of pseudo-fantasy to the horror-gripped World War II scenario.
The book’s primary subject, and its highest point as well, is Liesel and Rudy’s friendship. Reading them grow up is a delight. Amidst the rubles of war-torn Germany, something as beautiful as their friendship blossomed. Their loyalty towards each other, their adventures and their misadventures are vestiges of our puerile innocence, how it is not tainted of the bleakest events that surrounds us. We all like going back to those days when we could roam as freely as we want. And Liesel and Rudy just reminded us of those days of bliss.
But the Fuhrer’s tumultuous reign spread fear throughout Germany. Freedom was stymied and everything was in chaos. People are trying to use every ounce of freedom they can. In this manner, I am grateful that Zusak used reading, writing and books as among the highest forms of freedom. Although some of the books mentioned were fictional, Liesel’s zest for reading provided a refreshing air.
Freedom was also depicted in the love that prevailed amongst the book’s characters. The love depicted in the story is something beyond romance. It is the love of parents to their child and of people towards humanity in general.
Beyond friendship and freedom, The Book Thief also dealt with more complex subjects. By using Death as the primary narrator, the book delved into the concept of mortality as mortality is a constant that hovers above every person’s head. The death of some of the primary characters underlined the inevitability and caprice of death. But Zusak gave Death a heart and depicted it as something as something not to be constantly feared. At one point, Death stated “even death has a heart.”
“Usually we walk around constantly believing ourselves. “I’m okay” we say. “I’m alright”. But sometimes the truth arrives on you and you can’t get it off. That’s when you realize that sometimes it isn’t even an answer–it’s a question. Even now, I wonder how much of my life is convinced.” ~ Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
Above All, The Children
But as the bombs peppered the small German town of Molching, The Book Thief reminds us of the innocent lives who fell victim to the atrocities of war. Just like Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, Zusak’s masterpiece is also about the children who got caught in the crossfire. The biggest victims of wars are the children who are supposed to be the hope of the nation. The movie’s ending was heartbreaking and one can’t help but wish that the book would end differently. But the movie was faithful in its adaptation. Unfortunately, the story couldn’t have ended on a more appropriate manner.
All of these elements worked because Zusak was able to find the perfect mix of reality and fantasy. The powerful narrative was skillfully written by Zusak. The setting, the descriptions, and the emotions were on point. Zusak did well in creating a connection between his readers and his characters. Zusak did great in spinning a magical tale that captured his reader’s heart and emotions.
However, the story had its shortcomings. Having Death exclusively relating the entire story proved to have its own downfalls. Death freely introduced unrelated subjects in its soliloquy. It narrated endlessly about subjects that are trifles such as how Rudy’s hair color matches that of a lemon. Rudy would often be referred to as the lemon-haired boy. These drivels made the story longer than it should have. Death, although it is the story’s foremost facet, is at some point is its own undoing.
The story is lacking in foreshadowing because Death already spilled out how the story is going to end midway through the story. Death is too loquacious for its own good. This diminished the anticipation that was built from the beginning of the story. This could easily dishearten some of the readers. It was annoying as well how Zusak would use German phrases only to automatically translate it into English. It was like a disjointed tape that just kept repeating itself.
Nevertheless, Markus Zusak’s magnum opus is a refreshing tale. Its take on the theme of war is something that one rarely encounters. The Book Thief is a cut above the rest with its powerful narrative, and its wonderful depiction. It is a well-written masterpiece of breathtaking scope. Liesel is more than just a foundling who fell prey to the atrocities of war. She has her own story to tell. And that for me is the story’s most wonderful facet.
Recommended for readers who love reading about World War II, for those who want to experience a story related by Death itself, those who are adventurous in their reading, those who like stories about children, those who are interested in stories that develop over hundreds of pages and those who like reading books filled with symbolisms (not the Dan Brown brand of course).
Not recommended for those who are annoyed when the story has already been spoiled by the narrator, those who dislike books about death, those who are not fan of tragic endings, and those who dislike books about wars.
About the Author
(Photo by FavoriteOf.com) Markus Zusak was born on June 23, 1975 in Sydney, Australia.
Zusak’s first three works, The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, and When Dogs Cry (also known as Getting the Girl) were published between 1999 and 2001. These books brought Zusak numerous accolades in Australia and the USA. The Messenger (or I am the Messenger) was published in 2002 and won the 2003 Australian Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Award and a Printz Honour in America. In Germany, The Messenger, won the Deutscher Jugendiletatur prize in Germany.
However, it is undoubtable that Zusak’s biggest break in writing came in 2005 when The Book Thief was published. It stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a decade. Moreover, it won numerous award, including the 2010 Deutscher Jugendiletatur prize, his second citation in the same award-giving body. His latest work, Bridge of Clay, is set to be published in October 2018.
Markus Zusak is currently residing in Sydney, Australia with his wife and two children.