Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Book Thief A lot of books are described as “unique” and aren’t. This one really is. For one thing, it’s narrated by Death, who isn’t spooky at all, but rather a courtly gentleman, with good manners and a sense of humor. He is related more to the boatman who ferries souls across the River Styx than the Grim Reaper. And he has a strong sense of color, which infuses the book, and not just the color of buildings or clothes, but of the atmosphere and mood. It’s very much how I see things, in the way that color dominates my vision.
Set in the years of WW2, an orphaned little girl, Liesel, is taken to foster parents, the Hubermanns, a middle-aged couple in a small German town. The wife, Rosa, is all loud bluster, but the husband, Hans, is a soft spoken house painter who plays the accordion. Liesel has difficulty settling in at school, partly because she doesn’t really know how to read. Hans slowly teaches her and in doing so, they form a wonderful bond. A schoolmate, Rudy, takes Liesel under his wing and the adventures they have together, some of them harrowing, build a strong, and often teasing, friendship. As Lisle gradually fits into her new life, a young Jewish man unexpectedly shows up at the Hubermann’s door one night and to fulfill a promise, is hidden in the basement. How the rest of the story plays out is one of tragedy and love, described in prose that is unexpectedly beautiful and full of tenderness and twists.
The book is also a vivid portrayal of how ordinary citizens lived during the terror of the Nazis and the choices made and how that affected them. How decent people tried to hold onto their humanity with small acts of kindness. The reader acutely feels the winter cold and food shortages, along with the drastic changes and uncertainty the ongoing war brings.
The writing has an unusual rhythm. There are many asides, with lists, definitions and background comments that one would think would interrupt the flow, but instead amplifies the story. Sometimes a character is followed to the end of their journey before winding back to the main narrative. Not everything is explained, which normally frustrates me, but here, made it more realistic. Even the page numbers are in an archaic style, adding to the atmosphere. There is subtle symbolism, which isn’t really noticed until one is done reading. For instance, books to Liesel mean a connection to a person, as well as prized objects themselves, so the title has multiple meanings.
I’ve now read the book twice, but I haven’t seen the film and am not sure I want to. I watched the trailer online after finishing the book the second time and some of the casting seems too different from how I imagined the characters. Hopefully, those seeing the film first will be encouraged to read the book, because it’s certainly an excellent reading experience; powerful and heartbreaking.

Borzoi Books 2005 552 pp. ISBN 0-375-93100-7

4 comments on “The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

  1. Nicola
    June 2, 2014

    This is one of my absolute favourite books. I would really recommend the audiobook if you can get it, narrated by Alan Corduner (I don’t think I’ve spelt his name right), it’s fantastic. I agree with you about the film – I haven’t seen it either, and don’t think I can face it.

  2. Sharonrob
    June 3, 2014

    Thank you for a lovely review of a terrific book. I haven’t seen the film either and given some of the reviews I’ve seen, I don’t know if I will. I loved the way Zusak depicts Death. As you say, he’s a benign soul and his gentle presence is not the worst thing to befall a human being, especially in the context of Nazi Germany.

    I also enjoyed the depiction of life for ordinary Germans. They weren’t, as a group, herded into concentration camps and subjected to industrialised slaughter, but at best, they didn’t own their lives, the state did. At worst though, there was a war on and the bombs didn’t care who loved Hitler and who loathed him. Or who was too young to have an opinion either way. Zusak’s warmth and compassion makes this a lovely book for readers of all ages.

  3. Christine A
    June 4, 2014

    Great review. I have seen the film but not read the book and have to say the fact that Death is the narrator was completely lost on on me!

  4. Petra
    June 11, 2014

    The Book Thief is one of those books which are on my long wishlist but I was thinking that it can wait… Actually, I didn’t know anything about the story, many of my friends who like the same style as me were reading it so I thought I will try it as well. But now when I see the sentence “it’s the kind of book that can be life changing” and read your review, I feel like this should be my next reading after Lucien Ganiayre’s L’orage et la loutre which is also very special (but unfortunately quite unknown, I also know it only because I was lucky enough to find it in the Little free library we have nearby). I’m curious about it…

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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