(2006). New York: Knopf. 552 pages
Back in 2006 this book was the talk of the town. We added it to the library collection, I suggested it to readers, but never got around to reading it myself. Until now. And MAN, what a book. For me, this book lived up to the hype.
Narrated by a sardonic and ever witty Death, this story takes place during a busy time for him (this Death character is a masculine one) the years of 1939 to 1943. Death’s story focuses primarily on a small girl named Liesel Meminger and her time with a foster family in a town outside of Munich, Germany. If you know anything about history, you know these characters are in an environment rife with stress. Bad things are bound to happen. And they do.
But, this story is more about survival and life than it is about the bad things of the world. It’s more about how people respond to a world around them that changes and is uncertain. It also shows another side of the WWII story, a German perspective. Zusak creates characters whose complexities and depth make almost everyone lifelike and tangible. While reading I could almost feel the plush of the Mayor’s wife’s Nazi imprinted bathrobe and feel the wind rushing through Rudy Steiner’s coal blackened hair.
Zusak structures the book in a skilled way as well. Interspersed between the narrative are various facts about characters, the war, weapons, and other notes that Death interjects. These breaks often shed light on some other parts of the whole story, and sometimes add levity to a grave situation or vice versa. Other sections include illustrations and handwritten elements. But all of this only propels the story forward.
In the end, this book killed me. I sat reading the last 50 or so pages with tears streaming down my face. Zusak had made characters I began to fall in love with and then, he took them away. The story was over. I was left flipping back and forth through sections trying to get my self out of the teary funk.
In many ways, this book is about the reactions one has to the actions of others, so perhaps it makes sense that my tearful reaction was so strong. The Book Thief is brilliant, lovely, haunting…just plain good. A must read.