YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.
1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.
Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.
Some important information.
THIS NOVEL IS NARRATED BY DEATH.
It’s a small story, about: a girl, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter and quite a lot of thievery.
Another thing you you should know.
DEATH WILL VISIT THE BOOK THIEF THREE TIMES.
First published: 2005 [Goodreads]
THIS BOOK. I mean, seriously, this book! It’s amazing. I’m going to do nothing but rave about it in this review, just to warn you. There’s nothing I didn’t love about this novel. If this won’t be a classic in 50 years I don’t know what will.
My father had been telling me to read The Book Thief for a couple of monhts already before I finally got around to reading it. Every time I finished a book he said: “You know what you should read next? The Book Thief. It’s really good.” But I’m a mood reader, and I just wasn’t in the mood for a Second World War book and kept reading other books first, until, one day, I was finally ready for The Book Thief.
Or, well, I thought I was ready for it. I don’t think anyone is ever ready for this novel. I’m still not ready for it. Because boy, oh boy. Where do I even start…
While The Book Thief is set in Germany during the Second World War, it is so much more than a war novel. That was one of the first things I noticed when I started reading, and it’s something I really want to point out. It’s really striking to see how the war is such a huge part of Liesel’s life, but she has so many more things going on at the same time as well. There’s of course her obsession with books and reading (which was particularly fun to read about, being a bibliophile myself), but also the special relationships she has with her foster parents and her best friend, Rudy.
Still though, there is this omnipresent awareness and fear of the war that grows stronger and stronger as time goes on. It was really interesting to experience this war from a German (non-nazi) perspective, for a change. Zusak captured the atmosphere really well, I think. It was frightening to read about Hans Hubermann’s struggle to live under this regime he detested and the fear that came with it all.
Death as a narrator works really well for this story, too. His objectivity and, mainly, his non-humanness make for an even stronger emotional impact of the story. Death is beautifully personified, and doesn’t always manage to stay completely objective, but he remains disconnected and different from the humans he deals with every day. That’s what makes his storytelling so effective.
Furthermore, as if using Death as narrator isn’t risky enough in itself already, Death also reveals what is going to happen to some characters quite early on in the story. These are the kind of “spoilers” you’d get mad about if someone told you about them when reading any other kind of book. But it works here. You know what will happen (more or less), but you don’t know when it will happen, which makes the emotional build up even more intense than it already was.
Besides Death as a narrator, and Liesel as a most memorable main character, there is one more major thing that makes The Book Thief stand out for me. The language just blew me away. Zusak uses some very poetic language, but not in a distracting way. It really adds to the story and the emotional rollercoaster aspect of it. Sometimes I had to take a tiny break from reading to just think about one of Zusak’s sentences for a while. Not just about the language, but also about the sheer brilliance of some of the things he says.
Three languages interwove. The Russian, the bullets, the German.
[I]t stewed in her as she sat with the lovely books and their manicured titles. It brewed in her as she eyed the pages full to the brims of their bellies with paragraphs and words.
You bastards, she thought. You lovely bastards.
[…] The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make us feel better.
What good were the words?
I could say so many more things about this magnificent novel, but I’m going to leave it at this now. And with the risk of sounding like my father: seriously, go read The Book Thief, if you haven’t yet. It’ll blow your mind, and leave you feeling like you’ve been punched in the gut. But, you know, in a good way.