Book Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Year of First Publication: 2005

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2013

Number of Pages: 576

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Genre: Fiction

Sub-Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Lit.

Subjects: The Holocaust, Nazi Germany, Book Burning, Jews, Young Girls, Foster Families


The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl trying to survive in Nazi Germany. After being taken from her Communist mother just before the Second World War, Liesel is sent to live with Hans and Rosa Hubermann, her new foster parents. When Liesel first arrives at her new home, she is an illiterate, lonely little girl. But, as Hans teaches her to read, she slowly awakens to both the evil around her and the words that pull her through it.

I had heard lots of great things about this book, but two things kept me from reading it before now. One was my penchant for classic novels (and my slight prejudice against modern novels). I can understand wanting to be “different” and “original,” but some modern authors are a little too “different,” if you know what I mean. The other thing that kept me away was the fact that the story is narrated by Death. Would it be dank and depressing all the way through? Would the author try to make him amiable and only succeed in making him creepier than he would be otherwise? I mean, it’s a book about Nazi Germany and the narrator is Death: how much more lurid can you get?!

So a few months ago, I found myself in Barnes and Noble and decided to finally man up and read the thing. 550 pages later, I have only one thing to say:

Wow.

An author named Rachel Heffington once wrote about what she calls “a good brawling book.” “I like reading a book and getting smacked across the face and feeling my intellect’s blood take one under the jaw and stagger back a few paces,” she said. “I like being thrashed by another woman’s writing or ground under the heel of the prose of an uncommon man.” The Book Thief was definitely one of those kinds of books. It melted my heart one minute and in the next, tore my heart out . . . but I enjoyed it just the same. I’ve always said that writers who can take you to both ends of the emotional spectrum and handle both equally well are extremely talented people; it looks to me like Markus Zusak belongs in that class of gifted authors.

However, this book is not about to make it into my top ten for one simple reason: the style. I can’t decide it should be called stream-of-consciousness or deconstructed writing. Either way, it was strange and disorienting. I thought I might get used to it after a while, but on the 325th page, I realized there is no getting used to a style like that.

The Book Thief also reminds me of why I dislike the literary style known as “realism.” Of course, a book’s no good if it doesn’t immerse you in the scene, but with added realism comes the danger of “too much information.” I’m sure some people probably like to have as much detail as possible, but for me, including every nasty detail doesn’t add anything to the book: it just repulses me. Call me old-fashioned, but I do not need to know what the sewage smelled like or how bad Liesel’s thirteen-year-old chest hurt when she hugged Hans.

Those two elements aside, I enjoyed The Book Thief immensely. I won’t be rereading it any time soon because frankly, I don’t think my heart can take it (It was literally pounding at a few parts. Reading is exercise!). But nevertheless, it was a fantastic book. Markus Zusak may have given me a little more faith in modern literature.

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