“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”
-Marcus Zusak, “The Book Thief”
Rating: 5 stars
Days to read: 11
Sometimes the hardest books to review are the ones you loved the most. The ones where all you can say is, “stop everything immediately and go read this book, I have nothing more to add.” This book caught my eye after 2 friends rated it highly on Goodreads and both mentioned crying at the end. I don’t really cry while reading so I almost approached it as a challenge: if you’re really as good as they say you are, little book, give me your best shot. The book won.
The Book Thief is the story of a girl named Liesel who lives in a small village outside the city of Munich with a foster family starting right before World War 2. We first watch 10 year old Liesel on a train ride with her mother and brother as they travel to an orphanage where they will be given up for adoption, presumably because her mother can no longer care for them. Before they make it her brother dies on the train, and his death haunts Liesel’s nightmares for many years in her new home. It is also this event that begins her career of book thieving as she grabs a copy of a cemetery procedures book (of all things) in the snow at the funeral even though she can’t read. She and her foster father form a special bond as he is the one to console her after each and every one of her nightmares, and in those quiet early morning hours he teaches her to read. Down the street from Liesel’s foster family is a boy named Rudy. Liesel and Rudy become great friends, even if (probably because) they spend most of their time teasing and cursing at each other. How this scenario becomes incredibly endearing and heartwarming is a testament to Zusak’s prose– he is able to convey the kind of fierce love that is present between two people even when they don’t show it explicitly (see also: Liesel’s foster mother, whose generous heart becomes much more apparent later on in the story).
Liesel and her family live in a contentious time in Germany. Frequent and ostentatious demonstration of one’s allegiance to Hitler is expected to the point that any perceived weakness in this regard has serious consequences. At first her family attempts to play along even though their hearts are never truly in it, which becomes more complicated when a series of events leads Liesel’s father to hide a Jewish man (Max) in their basement. Liesel forms a strong bond with Max as well, like an older brother she never had. At one point he becomes incredibly sick, sleeping for several weeks, and Liesel reads to Max every day. When he wakes up he writes a few books for her; ‘The Word Shaker’ in particular is incredibly moving and speaks to the power of words, both those of Hitler and his rise to power, but also the words of those who stand up against him.
These characters alone are enough to capture my love for this book, but what makes the novel truly great is Zusak’s choice to tell the story through the character of Death. Death is sarcastic but not really evil. He is a result but not a cause. He does not delight in our passing, he’s just the carrier of souls. I loved his commentary about war not being “death’s best friend” as the phrase goes, but rather more like a “boss” who continually demands more. Death is particularly affected by our humanity, our best and our worst, and even seems attached to many of the characters. He has the perfect perspective for telling a story about how we live before we die. Death almost has a tenderness that belies how we normally think about and process death.. “It kills me sometimes, how people die.” I couldn’t get over this line. It’s beautiful.
I cried when Liesel cried for the last 100 pages of the book. It was a punch in the gut. In the words of George R.R. Martin, “when my characters are in danger, I want you to be afraid to turn the page (and to do that) you need to show right from the beginning that you’re playing for keeps.”
I’m worried for any book that comes after this, because I’m in a complete book hangover. There’s not a doubt in my mind this book gets 5 stars. Trust your friends when they warn you of book tears.