Markus Zusak’s book about World War II is a surprising, mesmerising and interesting tale in a literary genre that can sometimes seem overworked. Set in 1939 in Nazi Germany, this novel follows the story of a young girl, Liesel Mesinger, on her journey to meet her new foster parents, The Hubermann’s. However, in a narrative twist the young girl is not the one who delivers this tale, as Death itself moves to the forefront to portray Liesel’s life in the small town of Molching.
Adapting to her new life, Liesel is constantly tormented by nightmares that relive the last few moments of her baby brothers life on the train to her foster family. It is in these moments that she develops a loving relationship with her foster father, Hans, as he lulls her back to sleep. In order to aid the family, Liesel also assists her foster mother Rosa with her laundry business for the local neighbours. In a time when Nazi propaganda is in gathering momentum, Molching is picked for an infamous book burning ceremony. It is during one such episode that Liesel garners the title that graces the cover of the book.
Watching as the Nazi’s burn countless pages, Liesel is overcome with emotion and rescues a book from the ashes. She pushes the hot book against her chest and attempts to hide it from her Papa. This incident however does not go entirely unnoticed, as she is spotted by the mayor’s wife Ilsa. Later, Ilsa shares her magnificent library with the book thief who becomes an regular visitor. As the war begins to take its financial toll, the mayor stops using Rosa’s laundry service, which has a huge impact upon Liesel’s access to the library. Being unable to keeo away, she begins to “borrow” books by climbing in through an open window.
However, something else comes into play which adds a new level to Liesel’s books stealing . Max Vandenburg, the Jewish son of a WWI soldier that fought alongside Hans, appears on the Hubermann’s doorstep seeking refuge in anti-Semitic Germany. Max’s arrival sparks a the beginning of a profound relationship with Liesel, as she reads the stories from the books she steals. During very moving passages when Max is seriously ill, it is these stolen words that Liesel recites in the hope to comfort and revive Max. This love for books permeates through the text and becomes an interesting narrative device, as Max later divulges the tales of his own life.
In a book that sharply focuses upon books and language are some interesting narrative techniques. In particular, Death’s synaesthesia is captured beautifully throughout and appears to lift the black and white text from the book’s very pages. It is perhaps in this choice of narrative voice that The Book Thief is at its most powerful. We witness the pain of WWII through Liesel’s eyes and we are also privy to its affects from perhaps the one utmost authoritative voice on the subject of dying: Death. Another strength of this text lies in its depiction of a German town. The war’s affects are felt as all compassing, as the omniscient narrator appears to capture the effects of the war on ordinary German’s. This is particularly powerful in the narrative of Liesel’s best friend Rudy Steiner, who spikes the interest of the Nazi Party due to his academic and antithetic ability. Rudy refuses to join them and the repercussions of his actions echo throughout the rest of the text, as his father is taken as a replacement.
It is hard to do justice to this text without ruining key moments, however one thing that can be said is the presentation of this narrative is truly innovative. The body of the story is broken, with intermittent bites of text that give snippets of speech, descriptions and character’s thoughts and feelings. It is this unconventional structure that enhances a remarkable tale and makes Zusak’s book a literary masterpiece. In a novel about a young girl obsessed with books and language, it is unsurprising that the format that novel takes is one that challenges, yet ultimately rewards the reader.
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