The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is a devastatingly emotional roller coaster of a book. It tells the story of a little girl (Liesel Meminger) living in a small town in Nazi Germany during World War II with her foster parents (Hans and Rosa Hubermann) after she is separated from her real parents for their political views. Oh, and the Hubermann’s are also hiding a young, Jewish man in their basement. The story is written as if it is narrated from Death’s point of view, and we are introduced to a variety of colourful characters, most of whom you grow to live, and most of whom live on the ironically named Himmel (heaven) Street. One of the poorer streets in town.
Liesel’s character will put you through the wringer. Her story is a sad one, within the first few pages her brother dies before her eyes and she is separated from her mother. Despite all of this, she grows throughout the book to be a kind and loving character. For me, she has two major plot arcs in this story: one, how she learns to read and the impact that words and books have on her, and two, the development of her relationships with the people of the quiet town of Molching. The cumulation of these two plot arcs bring Liesel, and the reader, a clarity in understanding of Hitler’s Germany. She begins to see how he used words as a weapon, but also of how small acts of defiance and courage can remind people of their humanity.
The real strength and heart of this book is emotion. It made me cry, laugh and smile; sometimes, all within the same chapter. The heavy subject, and dark chapter of human history that is the setting of the book, means that it was never going to be a light, happy book. In spite of this, Markus Zusak masterfully intertwines heart-warming and cheerful moments throughout the story, building our love of the characters and our investment in them. This character development is key to the impact of the book, for without it, other moments would lack the punch that they do.
One of the things I most liked about this book is the way that the people of Nazi Germany were portrayed. Not as the monsters that they are often portrayed as, but as real, complex humans. We’re introduced to very few characters in this book that could really be classed as villains, and those that can be are distant figures, holding positions of power. This highlights the fact that, for the most part, people are good and kind, but also highlighting the power that fear can have on a society. The people of Himmel Street live in almost constant fear of the Nazi Party. Will they take my sons away to war? Will they take my rations away for not being a member of the party? Will they find the Jew in my basement?
As mentioned earlier in the review, the story is told from the view point of Death. This provides a unique perspective, and throughout the book Death grows as a character. We see his feelings and thoughts; how he is haunted by the dual natures of humanity, with their savage cruelty and kind, loving nature evident in spades throughout the story. I must admit, however, that in the beginning, I wasn’t a huge fan of this. I grew to like it more throughout the book, but I still have my reservations, and Death’s interventions become rarer as the story advances. Perhaps another reason why I grew more accustomed to it, as it interrupted the flow of the story less later on.
Overall, this is a book that I would thoroughly recommend to anyone. I had seen the movie before, a few years ago, and so kind of knew what would happen, but it still blew me away emotionally. Having enjoyed the film, I was also going in with quite high expectations, which thankfully, were lived up to. Don’t go in expecting a light read, that you can just breeze through; stop and think about what this book is telling you as you read. Oh, and as you get towards the end, it maybe a good idea to stock up on tissues.