Friday, March 26, 2010

Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak
Historical Fiction, World War II
552 pages
published: 2006
For: book club
6 of 5 stars


Death is tired. He has much to do on any day, but war requires overtime. He vacations in colors and tries to avoid the "leftover humans." Unfortunately, he fails one day and takes notice of a small girl who steals a book. Death keeps running into this girl as the years pass and war ravages Germany, the world, and her. The last time they meet he pockets the girl's diary so as to preserve her story, and eventually share it.

There were powerful themes of endurance, kindness, the power of words, and friendship. Most of all friendship - the power, necessity, and requirements of friendship.


I had a very unique experience with this book. It took me an unearthly long time to read it. I found myself carrying it up to my bedroom at night, and carrying it back down in the morning to sit by my spot, but I would not crack it open for a week at a time. When I was reading it, I didn't want to stop. When I wasn't reading it, I didn't want to start. "That bad?" you wonder. No. Anything but.

Let me step back. I challenge anyone to read this and believe, really believe, that the "characters" were fictional. They were real. They were beautiful and flawed people - people you know and understand and love and hate (for a moment) before you love them again. They were more real than I.

The writing was incredibly metaphorical. Here are some snippets:
"His skin widened."
"The only sound I'll hear after that will be my own breathing, and the sound of the smell, of my footsteps."
"...carrying handfuls of suffering..."
"His face tripped over itself."
 "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 the rain."

(All these quotes are from the beginning of the book. I apologize, but I am unable to search through the book for more, or later, or better, examples.) The writing wasn't just lyrical, or beautiful, it was poetry. Even the paragraphs were poetry. And it was sparse, sometimes the most powerful thing on the page being the amount of white space.  And being poetry, it had a unique power over me.

I am a poet.
Poetry is my first love, my first language.

Under usual circumstances, I am able to keep an emotional book at arm's length. I have a barrier, a protection, that keeps the book in a place where it can make me feel and experience and all the things a book can and should do, without taking me over. This is important because I do have a life outside of reading that I'm required to function in. This book bypassed my barrier. It cut straight through my skin. The poetry was the sword it used. This book spoke my language and I had no protection.

A book like that is dangerous.

And that is the reason I hesitated to pick it up again. I needed to allow healing time to pass between readings.

I should also mention that the pacing is also very post modern. The narration jumps around in time. Events aren't just foreshadowed, events happen multiple times. You'll be at one spot and totally unprepared for when everything jumps forward, and in that sparse and poetic way, announces how a beloved character will die, or when. There is no shielding from something like that. Yet, the narrator is so hospitable, so compassionate, that you can't fault his method of telling. And I suppose it was a kindness to die by degrees, instead of one fell sparsely-poetic death swoop.

Let me clarify that I am NOT a WWII virgin. I obsessed over WWII literature in early elementary school and have been reading and collecting it since. This book really is special. It made me cry. I don't mean misty eyes and can't see the book crying. I don't even mean seeping tears and hiccuping crying. I mean face-crumpling, should-shaking, check-sopping, book-dropping, loud-bawling crying. Over and over. I hate admitting this. But I need you to understand.

This book destroyed me.

Should you read it?? Yes. Please. It is amazing. It will be a classic from our time. The story is brutal. The characters are real and unforgettable. The writing is haunting. The plot is taken from our world - a darkest point in history - and never slows. It humanizes those who need a rewritten history, for not everyone in Germany was a monster. Not even many.

And there is every possibility that it will not have quite the same effect on you. This book was recommended, highly and repeatedly, to me by several different people, and no one mentioned that it was poetry or that my soul would be in danger.

And if you do not read it, how will we reminisce about our lost and mutual friends??

P.S. I love that Death is the book thief in the end.


  1. Wonderful perfect review.

    Did you just barely read this one? Or has it been awhile?

    Do you plan on trying some other Markus Zusak books? Or do you think they will live up to this one even a little?

    I really wish I could articulate as well as you have here the affect of this book.

  2. As you described the effects The Book Thief had on you, I remember feeling many of these emotions. It has been far too long since I've read it, likely because of its all-encompassing soul-sucking tendencies. I'm ready to re-read it. Thank you for reviewing it; you have a way of capturing in words the emotions and reactions that I was/am incapable of expressing.

    Like Suey, I am curious...are you up for the challenge of reading more Zusak?

  3. Wow, what a fantastic review! I loved, loved,loved the Book Thief and like you, it destroyed me too! That said, I had to press my copy into the hands of multiple friends, finally mailing it to a dear friend who didn't know when she'd get around to it. I don't mind giving it away, because I now plan on purchasing a hardcover copy!

  4. A wonderful review of one incredibly powerful poor. I want to read it again.

  5. I can't say I'm an emotional reader, so I was not impacted as greatly as you were, but, yes, it is on my favorites list. Beautiful language. After reading a review recently, I added his I Am The Messinger to my TBR pile. (queen bee)

  6. I know what you mean. I was the same way as I read The Time Traveler's Wife. When I was reading, I didn't want to stop. When I had stopped, I didn't want to start. I had seen the movie, so I knew (generally) how it ended. I didn't want to read that. I didn't want it to break my heart like I knew it would. That book got to me the way The Book Thief got to you! (And The Book Thief is on my TBR list.)