Markus Zusak’s gorgeous The Book Thief has floated in the periphery of my consciousness for a few years. I vaguely remember its publication and subsequent accolades, and I rediscovered it a year and a half ago when my friend, Hallie, and I briefly considered it for the 7th grade English curriculum. But it wasn’t until quite recently when my friend, Matthew, recommended it to me. He is a fellow lover of The Night Circus, so I decided that his recommendation was enough to finally read this persistently popular novel.
The novel starts with death, as the protagonist, Liesle Meminger, witnesses the death of her little brother on the train that is taking them ostensibly to safety and a more secure life with Hans and Rosa Hubermann on the “poor” street in Molching, Germany in the winter of 1939. The novel traces her life from that catalytic moment forward through the year just after World War II. It is an incredibly deft and sensitive examination of the horrors of that war, seen through the eyes of a young Lutheran girl, growing up in an anti-Hitler family in a fervently pro-Hitler town. Additionally, the book deals with the power of words, creating a shockingly clear context for Hitler’s sometimes incomprehensible rise and accumulation of power. It is all in the words.
Death is ever-present in the novel, most notably as the narrator. It could have been hokey or false or hateful, but instead Death views human souls as colors in a tapestry of time. On the eve of the war, he is tired, struggling to reconcile his role in human life with human nature. Then he meets our book thief, Liesle, for the first time, setting into motion events with far reaching consequences. In a Q&A section at the end of the book (it now comes with “discussion” materials as it is increasingly taught in schools and read in book groups), Zusak talks about his struggle with the character of death and his realization that Death couldn’t be the sarcastic, scary character he first envisioned, but rather an observer and learner of humans while still being wary of them himself. As such, Death becomes the perfect vehicle through which to view and experience Liesle’s life and the vital importance of words, both individually and societally.
Two other things I found to be notable about Zusak’s writing. One, he is a master of figurative language. I know I say a lot of writers are gorgeous or lush or what have you, but I want to take a class from Zusak on how to write figurative language this achingly beautiful. At one point, Max, the Jewish man the Hubermanns are hiding in their basement, yearns to see outside, so Liesle starts bringing him weather reports. Zusak describes the bright yellow sun as dripping from the sky, and it is so perfect and so clear and so right. There are countless other examples, but Zusak’s descriptions crawl under your skin and burrow into your soul. Simple, pure, beautiful. The other thing is that this book is, as my students would say, one giant piece of foreshadowing. Zusak as Death tells you every single thing that is going to happen. At first I thought that might be irritating and take away any suspense. But no, the reader quickly becomes so attached to the characters that the dread of knowing their fate when they themselves do not and waiting, waiting, waiting for it to happen are suspense enough. The reader may know what is coming but not when or how. It is masterfully done, and I had to give myself reading time limits so as to not get lost in the book for so long lest I shirk my other duties. (There are plenty other wonderful surprises about the book and its structure, but I will leave you to find them yourself; I wish you the same delight I felt upon stumbling upon those structural gems.)
I have to say, I absolutely loved this book. I was hooked from the very first word. I was charmed completely by the character of Death, and that enchantment held through the entire, rather quick, read. That being said, Zusak has written some of the most luscious, heart-wrenching, and profoundly real moments of horror and humanity that I’ve ever read. I am not a crier. Let me rephrase that: I cry all the time in normal life, but I’m not a crier when it comes to books and movies. I can count on one hand the number of books or films that have caused me to cry. Matthew cried for The Book Thief and warned me I would, too. I did not believe him.
The climax of the book socked me in the gut. I felt like I’d had the wind totally knocked out of me. And then the tears came. Tears of grief, shallow, tight breaths of disbelief. I knew it was coming! I knew it, and it still produced such an emotional reaction! The content, the structure, and the humanity of the writing all contributed to one of the most horrifying, beautiful, and complete endings I have read in a long time. I don’t know what else to say. It was an emotionally exhausting and utterly satisfying reading experience. That is the mark of a good book, I believe; it leaves its mark on you, the reader, in some way. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is truly an extraordinary tale, one that we should all have the privilege of knowing.