“I am haunted by humans” -Death

The Book Thief (A Review)

It’s just a small story really, about, amongst other things: a girl, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter and quite a lot of thievery. It is a tale of life narrated by Death.

Death encounters the Book Thief (without her knowledge) thrice in his existence. The first is when he arrives to collect her brother’s soul. For some unfathomable reason, Death follows her literally and figuratively. Whatever force that compelled Death to follow her that first time into a cemetery, also compelled him to pick up her notebook the third time they crossed paths. Death pockets Liesel’s notebook after she leaves it, forgotten in her grief, amongst the destruction that was once her home, and carries it with him, to retell. Set in Germany in the years 1939 to 1943, Death narrates the story of Liesel; the Book Thief.

The Book Thief successfully brings out Markus Zusak’s genius. Readers can all agree that Zusak is indeed an artist of words, a poet and a literary marvel. His writing is profoundly lyrical, haunting and poetic. Death is rendered vividly; a lonely, haunted being who has had a lot of time to contemplate human nature and wonder at it. He honestly tries to understand the worth of human existence and Liesel’s story sheds a little bit of light to the matter. Liesel is very real; a child living a child’s life of soccer in the street, stolen pleasures, sudden passions and a full heart while around her bombs drop, maimed veterans hang themselves, bereaved parents move like ghosts, Gestapo take children away and the dirty skeletons of Jews are paraded through the town.

She stole books from everywhere including the Mayor’s wife. Her only thieving passion was for books. Not good books or bad books — just books. From her bedroom to the bomb shelter down the road, reading the books she stole helped her commune with the living and the dead — and finally, it is the mere existence of stories that proved to be her salvation.
Many things save this book from being all-out depressing. Despite the narrative choice, Zusak has manages to not sound morbid through his words. A lively humour dances through the pages, and the richness of the descriptions as well as the richness of the characters’ hearts contribute to keeping the story a notch above being morbid.

The Book Thief is far from being your typical Nazi/Jewish tale. While poverty, discrimination and death play their usual parts, most others are completely upside down in Zusak’s Nazi Germany. Winners often lose. Sounds are tasted, visions are heard, Death has a heart, the strong do not survive, and your best chance of living may be a concentration camp. Ordinary Germans — even those who are blond and blue-eyed — are as much at risk of losing their lives and of being persecuted, as the Jews themselves. The entropy of this world is near complete.

While some readers find the fact that The Book Thief was narrated by Death thrilling and profound, some others regard it to be a failed gimmick. This is mainly due to the reason that Death being the narrator adds absolutely no extra value to the story. However, this act contributes to giving Liesel’s story extra credit. The mere fact that Death finds it worthy enough to narrate is value in itself.

Some readers — mainly teenagers — may find Zusak’s narrative style to be somewhat confusing and slow paced. However young-adults are bound to find the change appealing. The Book Thief is the kind of book that can be life-changing, because without ever denying the essential amorality and randomness of the natural order, The Book Thief offers its readers a believable, hard-won hope.

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