Review of THE BOOK THIEF by MARKUS ZUSAK
When telling a friend about this book, the most obvious hook is that Death narrates the story. However, Death isn’t nearly as intruding as one might expect and doesn’t crush the story’s own power beneath an overly intense tone. An interview with the author in the back of the book reveals that he originally wrote Death differently, a much crueler character, who reveled in the morbidity of his purpose. That didn’t feel right, so Death morphed into something else, a personality much more affecting for his subtlety. THE BOOK THIEF is historical fiction, set in Germany during World War II, and Death’s distanced, at times almost mundane, tone only heightens the horror.
Though Death’s narration doesn’t pull focus from the actual story of a little girl named Liesel with a habit of stealing books, such a mysterious character provides the author an unusual amount of freedom. Death gives away the ending. Multiple endings, in fact. Not at all in a way that ruins the book, but occasionally he will slip in a line about what happens to someone later on, another distanced reminder that these people have little control over their own endings. In Death’s voice, Zusak also inserts frequent tangents, musings, and emphasized thoughts with a unique formatting style.
* * * EXAMPLE OF AN EMPHASIZED THOUGHT * * *
They look like this,
cutting up a page.
They are short and blunt
and sometimes profound.
Since this story both takes place during World War II and is narrated by Death, it’s not much of a spoiler to admit that many characters die. My one disappointment with this book was that I didn’t feel any of the deaths. The book held my attention until the end, but I found it more intellectually engaging than emotionally affecting. Perhaps Death’s distanced tone played a large factor in that. Maybe when the narrator slips in mentions of the countless other bodies he has collected through the years, it pulls from the individual grief of a particular death and creates a collective grief, not quite as sharp a pain but one that never dulls or fades. While character deaths didn’t make me sad, I don’t mean to imply that this book never moved me, because that would be a lie. The moments that dragged forth my empathy were those of brave kindness, though I will avoid specific details for spoiler reasons. Whenever a character made a small but extremely powerful gesture of humanity at his or her own personal risk, I felt more than all the deaths combined, both in hope and in sadness, because those gestures couldn’t stop the end.
A great many individual lines in this book are worth cherishing. For example: “can a person steal happiness?” — only one of many lines that made me pause and consider. THE BOOK THIEF didn’t suck me in as I expected; however, the story lingers with me, and perhaps that’s something stronger.