Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I feel like the last person to read this book, so there isn’t too much I can add to the conversation.  This is a book that pops up on most bloggers’ “best book” list.  I worried that it wouldn’t live up to such high praise, but it absolutely does.

I started this book twice and almost didn’t finish it.  About a year ago, I downloaded the sample first chapter and thought “eh”.  Too gimmicky.  Trying too hard to be witty. Because, you see, this book is written from an unusual point of view.  The narrator is Death.

The book takes place in a city outside Munich in World War II Germany.  And as Death explains, he has a lot of work to do during this time.

To give you an understanding of the strange way this book is written, here is how the book begins:


First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.

You are going to die.

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.

***Reaction to the ***
Does this worry you?
I urge you–don’t be afraid.
I’m nothing if not fair.
–Of course, an introduction.
A beginning.
Where are my manners?
I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A color will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.

At that moment, you will be lying there (I rarely find people standing up). You will be caked in your own body. There might be a discovery; a scream will dribble down the air. The only sound I’ll hear after that will be my own breathing, and the sound of the smell, of my footsteps.

The question is, what color will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying?

Personally, I like a chocolate-colored sky. Dark, dark chocolate. People say it suits me. I do, however, try to enjoy every color I see–the whole spectrum. A billion or so flavors, none of them quite the same, and a sky to slowly suck on. It takes the edge off the stress. It helps me relax.

People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and ends, but to me it’s quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment.
A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors.

Waxy yellows, cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses.
In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a whole book written in this style.  But my worry was unfounded.  The book does tell a story, and this story is about a young German girl named Liesel.  Liesel is sent by her mother to live with a “foster” family.  Liesel’s new Mama is a tough-on-the-outside  but soft-on-the-inside laundrywoman.  Her new Papa is an accordion-playing house-painter, who’s just a softie all the way around.  It is Papa who sits beside Liesel every night when she has nightmares about watching her brother die.

Liesel is a book thief.  She only owns a few books during the course of the story, and most of those books are stolen.  Her first book is stolen accidentally; she finds it the night that her brother dies. It is a caretakers’ manual on how to bury people.  Learning to read is something she struggles with, and the book becomes precious despite its strange subject matter.  Her second book, she steals from a burning bin during a mass book-burning by the Nazis. Books become Liesel’s passion, the only thing she cares about beyond her friends and family.  Each book is a prize, something to be cherished and shared with others.  Something that gets you through sleepless nights and long nights of air raids.

Liesel isn’t a Jew, nor is her foster family.  Yet all the same, author Markus Zusak shows us the deprivations of war, and the fear generated by the Nazis, even for non-Jewish Germans.    Zusak is an Australian, only 30 years old, who grew up hearing about World War II Germany, the bombing of Munich, and the marches of Jews through town on their way to the Dachau concentration camp.  Those stories inspired this book.

Zusak brings poetry, and even beauty, to the horror of the Holocaust.  He shows in only a few vivid scenes how much courage it took for a single person to show compassion, and how many ways the Nazis made people afraid to speak against the persecution of the Jews.  He shows that some caring individuals did heroic things and made a difference.

There’s plenty of Holocaust literature out there, but Zusak has created unique and unforgettable story.

I started reading this book in Poland after touring Auschwitz and seeing the old Jewish neighborhoods of Prague and Krakow.  After a little while it became too much for me, and I had to put it down and read something NOT related to the Holocaust.  But I picked it up a few days later, on an 8 hour train ride to Slovenia.  I read the entire book that day, and I’m glad I did.

  7 comments for “Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

  1. October 3, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    Wow – to read this shortly after seeing Auschwitz must have have made the story even more powerful! I’ve read reviewers who really didn’t like the style of the writing in this book, but I think it was perfect for the story. Thanks for the review.

  2. October 3, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    I agree that reading a book that deals with the Nazis and the Holocaust after seeing Auschwitz must have been intense. I’m glad you ended up enjoying it.

  3. October 4, 2011 at 3:52 am

    I felt the same way about the gimmick factor when I started reading this book. I only kept going because a friend had recommended it repeatedly…and because I was working at a week-long summer camp and it was the only book I’d brought with me. I imagine that reading this while you were visiting concentration camps must have been intense, as others wrote; I thought Zusak did a fantastic job of giving us this odd sort of view of the Holocaust (I mean both from the pov of Death and the gentile girl with a Jewish man in the basement). I’m not quite sure how to phrase this, but I feel as though he managed to tug pretty aggressively at the readers’ heartstrings, without ever seeming to be manipulating the reader into sobbing through the novel’s last pages.

  4. October 4, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    It’s an amazing book, that’s true! I am glad more and more people discover its intensity! 🙂

  5. October 4, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    Great review! I’m all over it!

  6. October 4, 2011 at 11:33 pm

    Brilliant book isn’t it. I cried like a baby on the train at the end – very embarassing but I couldn’t help myself. Have you tried The Messenger? It’s another of his books that is also really wonderful.

  7. October 23, 2011 at 2:01 am

    I’m glad you tried to read it but once more, and enjoy it! I loved this book – wonderfully written, and just totally gripping. I thought Death as the narrator would be slightly more gimmicky and you know – annoying, but I was well surprised.

    On reading your review, I feel like I must re-read this soon, although I read it relatively recently (two odd years ago).

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