Magdalena's Reviews > The Book Thief

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
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Jul 12, 2007

it was amazing
Recommended for: adults (despite its genre in the US)
Read in February, 2007

Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief has one of the most original and striking narrators since Julian Barnes introduced us to the canny perspective of a woodlice in History of the World in 10½ Chapters. There’s no caginess about it. The first word of the first chapter’s title makes it clear that the narrator is a personified Death: the not so grim reaper. Having Death as the narrator for a book set in Germany at the start of World War II starts the book on exactly the right blackly humorous tone which continues throughout. It’s a very Jewish type of humour. I’m thinking of the classic Borsch belt comedians like Sholem Aleichem, Milton Berle or perhaps even later comedians like Billy Crystal or Woody Allen. As Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse quoted in her Radio National piece on Jewish Humour, Saul Bellow calls “characteristically Jewish” a story in which laughter and trembling are so curiously mingled that it is not easy to determine the relations between the two, or as Death puts it: “A final dirty joke. Another human punchline.” (12) This is part of the power of what Zusak does in The Book Thief.

Although The Book Thief succeeds on the most post-modern of levels, its impact on the reader is as much due to superb old fashioned plot and characterisation as anything else. It is, afterall, simply a beautiful and painful story of a young girl as she deals with an important and tragic point in history. Liesel is nine and her younger brother six, when her mother takes her and her brother to Munich to be given to foster parents. En route her brother dies: “When the coughing stopped, there was nothing but the nothingness of life moving on with a shuffle, or a near-silent twitch. A suddenness found its way onto his lips then, which were a corroded brown colour, and peeling, like old paint.” (20) Liesel is then thrust into a nightmare/dream existance which involves the thieving of a book, the development of a relationship with her foster parents, Rosa and Hans Huberman, and her growing sense of self as she ages during this period. Liesel’s coming of age is a key part of the plot, and it is possible to read the book as simply the story of Liesel. Certainly Liesel’s characterisation is enough to carry the story. When Liesel arrives at the Hubermans she is scared, almost mute, and refuses to get out of the car or into a bath, but we have already begun to love her through the lens of Death’s sympathy

Death’s own role as a character is a strong one, and he hints at a conflicted inner life. In some ways he makes himself a slave of humans – dealing with the impact of their wars and atrocities: “The boss, however, does not thank you. He asks for more.” An afterlife is hinted at very subtly, but never clarified – bodies go cold and melt and sometimes warm again as their souls are gently removed. That’s all the reader gets. The rest is left open to imagination, as is the direction that Death as character might be moving in. He’s allegorical in one sense, but so real in his sensations, longings and emotions, that it isn’t hard to imagine some kind of progression for him. As character, he may not be nice, but he has his charms, as typified by the last line in the book. Death’s most striking punchline is delivered at the very end. And like the best Jewish humour, it works by turning both fear and convention on its head, in this case, making humans the ‘other’ haunting entity. It also places the final spotlight directly on life, and the celebration and triumph of it, even in the face of man-made hatred and horror. The Book Thief is a wonderful book, full of beauty, pain, longing, joy, and sensuality. It never skirts the horror of war, death, or pain, nor does it flinch at the very real tragedy it immerses itself, sometimes graphically, in. But even at its ugliest, this is a story of the beauty and celebration, however fleeting, of human life.
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Elaine Great review. I just finished the book and appreciate your insight.

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