Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s groundbreaking novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.
The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.
This is a book about a young girl growing up in Nazi Germany. Not a story about a Jewish girl, but a story about the seemingly ordinary life of an ordinary 10-year-old girl. The thing is though, this is no ordinary story. And the main character, Liesel Meminger, is no ordinary girl. Probably the most peculiar thing of all is that the book is narrated by Death. And no, that wasn’t a typo. I really mean Death.
At the beginning of the book Liesel loses her younger brother, and is sent to live with a foster family just outside Munich. She’s terrified of her foster mother, but her foster father soon earns her trust and for a while he is her sole comfort in this new town where she doesn’t know anybody. She feels lost and has no idea why her mother sent her away, though slowly but surely she starts to adapt to her new surroundings. In spite of her age Liesel can barely read, and because she suffers from terrible nightmares her foster father teaches her how to read until the small hours.
She stole her first book on the day of her brother’s funeral, but as the narrator noted, she wouldn’t become the book thief just yet. Soon Liesel becomes close friends with one on the boys that lives on the same street, Rudy. They play football together, generally muck about, and steal apples. Later on in the novel Rudy becomes her partner in crime when she’s out stealing books.
“He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world.
She was the book thief without the words.
Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain.”
I don’t want to give too much of the book away, but at the same time I have the urge to summarise the entige thing and tell everyone how amazing it is and how much I loved reading it. The general theme that runs throughout the story is that books are a lifeline. People cling to them in troubled times, draw strenght from them, feel exhilirated by them in happier times, and sometimes they’re even life savers, quite literally. Liesel soaks up letters and words and narratives like a giant sponge, and throughout the book we see the many ways in which this helped Liesel, or how it enabled her to help others. She helps Max, the Jewish refugee her foster parents hide in their cellar, not to lose contact with the outside world by bringing him newspapers and describing to him what the sky looks like on that particular day. She reads to her neighbour to comfort her after the tragic loss of her son. She reads to others in the shelter during the bombings to distract them from what’s going on above ground.
“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.”
The Book Thief incorporates so many different elements that I find it hard to pinpoint it all exactly and write it all down. The author writes in such a way that it feels as though you’ve been on an epic journey, when in reality what you’ve read is the story of one seemingly insignificant young girl. This only proves that every single life is precious and special, and that you don’t need to come from a priviliged background in order to be special and give meaning to other people’s lives.
To me The Book Thief encompasses all that is beautiful and all that is cruel in this world, which sounds odd perhaps, but it all fits together beautifully in this book.
As I already mentioned, the book is narrated by Death which is unique in itself. Death tries to make sense of the human race, something which it finds hard to do, and it gives the entire story a unique perspective. Unbiased in a way, observing and occasionally interfering, but not all-knowing.
“So many humans. So many colours. They keep triggering inside me. They harass my memory. I see them tall in their heaps, all mounted on top of each other. There is air like plastic, a horizon like setting glue. There are skies manufactured by people, punctured and leaking, and there are soft, coal-coloured clouds, beating, like black hearts. And then. There is death. Making his way through all of it. On the surface: unflappable, unwavering. Below: unnerved, untied, and undone.”
For me it was a book that’s almost impossible to put down, but at the same time I didn’t want it to end
Many people praise this book and call it a modern classic, and I’m inclined to agree with them. It is truly one of the most exceptional books I’ve read in a long time.