Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Title: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Pages: 552
Genre: Historical Young Adult
Publication Date: March 14th, 2006
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Source: Personal Copy

When I found a used copy of this highly acclaimed young adult novel at my local Goodwill, I decided to take the plunge (seeing as how the page count clocks in at about 550 pages) and see what all the fuss was about. After turning the last page I was left somewhat confused in my opinion of the book. The characters and overall plot were wonderful, yet the narration and the writing felt like the author was trying way too hard to create a literary masterpiece. Even though I enjoyed the book, Zusak’s work may have become a victim of over-hyping.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak weaves the tale of Liesel Meminger and her life as a young German foster child growing up during the beginnings of Adolf Hitler's ascension to power and the reign of the Nazi party. Through all the trials and tribulations she endures, Liesel finds solace in the written word and attempts to heal not only herself but those who live in her small town of Molching.

On the surface this book was fantastic! The emotional roller coaster I was thrust upon while reading each page left me drained and exhausted. Just thinking about such a horrific period in world history is upsetting, but add to those feelings the viewpoint of a young child and BAM...tearjerker. Many exquisite elements of this novel are the relationship Liesel builds during her lifetime. Those connections help her not only survive her loses but also help her lead the semblance of a normal childhood.

Deceiving appearances is one recurring theme that impacts all the characters, from Rosa Hubermann to the Mayor's wife to Hitler himself. For me, this was a major element in helping the story's progression. By the end of the novel each person was revealed as something different than the reader was made to believe, whether for better or for worse. Liesel's family must deceive an entire town to protect the life of Max, the young Jewish man who occupies the basement. Rosa's initial characterization as the evil foster mother slightly fades and reveals a caring and sympathetic woman who has been hardened by poverty. Even Hitler presents himself as a simple orator spewing propaganda but evolves into one of the most heinous criminals in history. Zusak's use of this overarching theme to examine how the difficulties people face during a war help uncover true natures and motivations.

However, there is a definite flip side to all these positives, and that lies in the writing. For a book that's main point is the power and importance of words, the overall writing should have been greatly improved. The metaphors and descriptions left a lot to be desired. Examples:

It smelled like friendship
The breakfast colored sun
He crawled to a disfigured figure
Oh, how the clouds stumbled in and assembled stupidly in the sky. Great obese clouds.

Every time I encountered such nonsense, my respect for the book decreased. I also felt that Zusak's writing style led to the oversimplification of such a tragic event. Most of the Germans in the story are characterized as "good" and the notion of antisemitism among the "average" citizen was greatly glossed over. Moreover, Liesel's assertion that Hitler would be nothing without words really bothered me. I'm not saying words didn't play a huge part in Hitler's rise to power, but there were definitely other factors that helped along the way (e.g. his charisma, the fear and xenophobia of a people, a powerful army.) Reducing the Holocaust to such a statement just seems absurd.

Also, I felt the ending, while tragic and a definite tear inducer, was too neat and tidy and read as if the author just gave up. The basic premise of Death as the narrator was working fine until he shows favoritism for this young girl's story over all of the victims of the Holocaust. Keeping Death as a neutral omniscent narrator would have been acceptable, but adding in such biases took away his credibility and began feeling like a gimmick.

Overall, The Book Thief was a decent attempt at a very complicated topic. I must reiterate that I did enjoy this book and do not regret having read it. A lot of the problems I found are admittedly picky and thus did not completely ruin the reading experience.

With that being said, one question still remains. Is it possible to love a book's characters and enjoy the plot, while simultaneously disliking the writing style and finding certain elements gimmicky? Can the two even be separated, or does the former depend so much on the latter, rendering a severance impossible?

Rating 4/5


  1. I think it's possible to separate style and substance to a degree - if a story draws me in I can get over lackluster writing. That's only to a degree, though, and I've abandoned a lot of books because I couldn't bear the style. Doesn't matter what the book is about, if I'm not enjoying reading it I'm not going to finish. When I started "The Book Thief" I found the style off-putting and the idea of Death as narrator kind of gimmicky. That faded away though, and I started to like some things - like you write, it's weird and doesn't make sense that Death would favor Liesel's story above all others, but I liked that weird and kind of inappropriate humanity he was given. And though the book did oversimplify, I figured, "eh, it's meant for kids", a clear case of me liking a book enough to dismiss its faults.

    -- ellen

  2. Ellen -

    Thanks for stopping by!

    It's always hard to decide at what point to quit a book due to bad writing, because you never know when it could have improved/been worth it (The Book Thief.) Do you have certain "final straws" when it comes to abandoning a read?

    Also, I did a little research after finishing and was surprised to find out that when it first released in Australia it was marketed as adult literary. The writing seems to reflect that...straddling the line between YA and adult. While some of the major issues were oversimplified, certain aspects, such as the mass murdering and language, seemed more appropriate for an adult audience. Unfortunately, I think this confusion weakened this one for me.


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