Friday, March 07, 2008

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

This book is really brilliant. I was taken with it from the opening pages, in which you discover that the narrator is Death. Death with an ironic sense of humor, Death who longs for a vacation “somewhere tropical, or of the ski trip variety.” Death, who meets the girl known as the book thief on three different occasions before he finally comes for her soul.

The book thief is Liesel Meminger, a girl who has already known hardship when at age 9 she comes to live with foster parents Rosa and Hans Hubermann in a suburb of Munich in 1939. The daughter of communists, Liesel’s father’s whereabouts are unknown and her mother is too sick to care for her. The Hubermanns are poor, and live a hardscrabble life in a city where opportunities are slim for men such as Hans who won’t join the Nazi party. They get by on his occasional painting jobs, and gigs as an accordion player, and Rosa’s work as a washerwoman. But they grow to love Liesel and she them; they are a family. In this manner life progresses until the midnight arrival of Max Vandenburg, a young Jewish man who approaches the Hubermanns for sanctuary, based on Max’s father’s friendship with Hans during the First World War

Hiding Max gives the Hubermanns a purpose, a means by which they can defy Hitler. Acts of defiance (both large and small) play a big role in Liesel and Hans’s relationship. Stealing books is another way that Liesel can defy authority and gain a sense of control over her life. Liesel’s partner in crime is her friend Rudy, who is himself a rebel; he is fierce in his refusal to submit to the abuse he suffers at the hands of his Hitler Youth leaders, and is loyal to his idol, the American Olympic runner Jesse Owens.

What does Death have to say about all this? A lot. His asides pepper the chapters with wit and astringency. But while Death can be funny, this story is sad. These people have really hard lives and things don’t work out so well for many of them. Zusak very effectively makes you feel the grinding poverty and desperation, the hopelessness, and the fear his characters experience. His voice is highly original and compelling, and despite the pervasive sadness this is a beautiful book.

(Book 7, 2008)


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful review. Thanks! I thought this book was amazing. The more I think about it, the more I like it. I liked reading about the war from the perspective of sympathetic Germans. I loved Death as a narrator. Everybody should read this book!

Becky Holmes said...

Thanks for your comment. I love that short film you posted. It's very evocative. Everyone, go to Natasha's review of The Book Thief (click on the maw books link at the top of her comment) and read her review and watch the YouTube video she's got. It captures a lot of the mystery of the book.

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