Remember that bargain bin, where I picked up Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Right next to it was The Book Thief, number one book on the Dymocks 101 of 2016, an international best-seller, marked down to just $4. Seemed pretty reasonable, so I picked it up quick smart!
This is one of the books on my reading list that I’ve heard plenty of, but not heard much about. Before picking it up, I was pretty sure it had been made into a movie starring some not-unheard-of people but, gun to my head, I couldn’t have told you the first thing about the story. Even so, an EXTRAORDINARY #1 INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER is probably not to be sneezed at, so I had pretty high expectations.
I’m not gonna lie: it starts out pretty heavy. Turns out, it’s narrated by Death (how post-modern!). Death tells us we’re in Nazi Germany, it’s cold as balls, a kid dies on a train, and his mother and sister have to bury him quick smart out in Woop Woop before they carry on to dump the remaining child with a foster family. Liesel – the still-alive kid, who turns out to be the protagonist – is freaking the fuck out. She steals a book from the gravedigger, even though she can’t read at all. Clearly, this story won’t be fun for anyone involved.
It builds up to a rollicking pace rather quickly, but the writing style takes some getting used to – lots of short, bursty sentences that are Laden With MeaningTM. Some of it was actually kind of pretty, but I couldn’t shake my suspicion that Zusak was just trying a bit too hard.
He crams The Book Thief chock-full with misery and unfortunate events. The foster family is no Brady Bunch, and just as Liesel starts to settle in, they also start harbouring a Jew in the basement, feeding him scraps and surreptitiously emptying paint tins of his piss outside. It felt for a minute like the foster mother was being set up as the “bad guy” (nope, that’d be Hitler), but I liked her most of all. She told everyone to lick her arse if they disagreed with her, among other expletive-ridden rants.
Liesel develops a close relationship with her foster father (Hans), who starts teaching her to read. There’s one particularly touching scene where she figures out that her mother was taken by the Nazis for being a communist and Hans smacks her for saying she hated Hitler in public. The story continues in much this same vein: people die, people get sent to concentration camps, kids steal food to eat, and places get bombed. Zusak fully takes us through how much the Nazis sucked.
The narration-by-Death is a cute quirk, but otherwise The Book Thief is a super-familiar narrative. I think we’re all well aware that the Nazis were awful and literacy is important, and there wasn’t really anything else new or revelatory. I don’t think I got anything out of The Book Thief (aside from the cool narrative technique) that I didn’t get already reading The Diary of a Young Girl when I was twelve.
On that note, though, we really should keep in mind that The Book Thief – despite its heavy subject matter – is Young Adult fiction. That means it’s not a very laborious read for the grown-ups, which makes for a nice change of pace. I’d say The Book Thief is great for someone on the upper end of the Young Adult age bracket, who’s just starting to learn about WWII… or for anyone who wants to feel smart without having to work too hard for it. 😉
My favourite Amazon reviews of The Book Thief:
- “Sentimental rubbish with obvious characters, most of which were stolen from Great Expectations.” – Maurice Lucas
- “I cold have done without all the cursing. The beginning was plodding and slow; the characters were flat. Deeper character development would have added layers to this story and made it much more interesting. The only one I really empathized with was the narrator, ‘Death’.” – L. H.
- “Too confusionly written. Jumped around too much. Movie much better.” – Tip Top lady bug
- “8///(&+;+&:::)___444)==4)))_))&))222gfytrydghjhhfvcbchfgcytrdyfy Guv fffffffffgfffffffffffffffffgfgffffffffffffffffff strategic planning to find the first place for those of you can bring some if the movie and I think the movie and its first place in fact the world is not only the movie was the movie is a lot more to BEEN Isabel” – izzyb0430@gmailIsabel
March 29, 2018 at 8:08 PM
My wife read this a few years ago. I was thinking about reading it. I think that stories championing books are gentlemen going to be popular, even if they do not really break too much new ground. Bookish folks tend to make them popular. I also have not seen the film. I may at least give that a try.
March 29, 2018 at 8:14 PM
Well, Geoffery Rush stars in the film and he is always fantastic in everything he does, so I’m sure you can’t go wrong with that! 🙂
April 3, 2018 at 8:08 PM
Loved this book, the descriptions of the walking dead on the way through the town and the way people reacted to them really stayed with me afterwards
April 4, 2018 at 11:02 AM
Hahaha you’ve got a keener eye than I do, Phil! I can’t bring to mind a single passage that really got me. I think I’ll need to revisit Mrs Dalloway at some point in the distant future, when I’ve got a bit more modernist reading under my belt, see if I can get more out of it the next time around.
February 1, 2019 at 8:06 PM
I loved the book, read it years ago and a passage has stayed with me ever since “Blood was bleeding through, and in patches, the clouds were dirty, like footprints in melting snow.
Footprints? you ask.
Well, I wonder whose those could be”. Something about the style really stuck with me, only a few books have had the same effect, “Cat’s Eye” by Margaret Atwood comes to mind. Love your blogs, I came across them after searching “Henry James Pretentious” halfway through reading the golden bowl!
February 2, 2019 at 11:36 AM
Ha! I can’t think of a more on-brand way for someone to find my blog, thank you so much! Glad you’re enjoying it 😉 Did you check out Markus Zusak’s new one, Bridge Of Clay, yet? Would love to hear thoughts from a lover of The Book Thief!
February 4, 2019 at 7:22 PM
No I haven’t, when I’ve read it let you know know how I found it 😊
April 10, 2022 at 5:10 PM
Yes, such a good book-doesn’t matter that it is branded as YA! The movie was also quite good (the actress who played Leisel was just turning 13 as the movie wrapped up production and she was amazing, as was her neighbor/ boyfriend as well) and I recommend the audio version as very good also, loved the narrators voice and I’ll never forget the way he said ‘Hans Huberman’-loved it!❤️
April 12, 2022 at 12:41 PM
Oooh good tip, I haven’t checked out the audiobook – thanks Cathy!