Long story short, I was given this book by a friend for my birthday and it came highly recommended. Expectations, set. A historical fiction? Yes. Lush character developments? Say no more.
I became more than interested after learning that The Book Thief is categorized not just as a literary classic, but specifically a children’s contemporary classic. I was concerned that because I wasn’t necessarily its target demographic, it could very well be a hit or miss for me and more likely, the latter.
But surprise, surprise, I was proved wrong. Put simply, this was one of the most soul-shattering and beautiful reads this year. I really didn’t mind some of my longer subway commutes this month as a result and may have yelped out loud a time or two when something terrible occurred in the plot (a sincere apology to my fellow commuters on those occasions).
After finishing it through, here are my thoughts.
1. Zusak is most definitely a lyrical wordsmith in his own right. This truly shows in the characters he creates through the rich yet nuanced personalities, reminding me quite often of people I know in my own life. My favourite character was actually the fiery Rosa Hubermann. I absolutely loved how she balances the fine line (or very blunt line) between harsh aggressive talk and sincere care for her family; her character is a multitude of complex layers but also extremely straightforward. How she manifests strength throughout the novel is not your ordinary, hero-in-a-cape archetype, but it appears in unexpected, powerful ways.
2. My largest criticism of this novel is its narrator. While setting Death as the narrator makes this story unique in a way, I found that it personally took away from my reading experience and lightened the emotional weight of important moments. Maybe its just the particular tone or some extra comments that Death made which distracted from what was unfolding in the plot before me.
I especially had a bone to pick with the fact that the narrator would not just foreshadow but outright reveal the outcomes of several key characters. For example, “4 days later, little did X character know that he would meet his death”. Why?! Instead of conjuring up any emotional response to when said event occurred, I felt as though I cheated and had already seen into the future via Death’s comments and thus had been prepared and primed for when things happened.
3. This book is by no means a quick read. And I mean that in the best way possible. It’s definitely long, but I never felt bored or in a state of avoidance trying to read it. I typically time my book reading right before going to sleep so that the monotony of the words would seamlessly lull me to sleep (anyone else do this? lol), but The Book Thief gave the complete opposite effect. Within minutes, I would become engrossed in the vivid everyday world and devastation of Molching, nowhere near tired or ready to sleep for the next few hours.
While some have criticized it for being unnecessarily drawn out and consisting of excessive anecdotes strung together in a disjointed way, I quite enjoyed this aspect and found it an excellent parallel to that of war. For is this not how many people experience war at its worst? Not as a perfectly sensible sequence of events with finite time constraints, but when witnessed firsthand, it becomes rather a collection of disruptive, nonsensical experiences and waiting, lots of waiting, for what the next day will bring or take away. I felt like the duration of this novel was neither too short or long and was exactly enough to tell the story and each character arc in its full breadth.
4. Lastly, what I will take away the most from The Book Thief is its emphasis on the child-like imagination. Let’s face it, a novel (even fictional) about World War II can be heavy to say the least. Some of the things that occurred within this story are based on very real and true events throughout the Holocaust and while reading, your heart twists, wrenches and sinks at some of the horrendous things different characters have to endure. It’s easy to read a novel like this and leave feeling shattered, disheartened and cynical, but what I find to be the story’s redeeming grace is the invitation to the reader to share in the children’s perspective of the world around them.
Liesel directly experiences and witnesses a lot of pain and suffering around her, sometimes to the point that it’s beyond her own understanding because she is after all, a young child. I can’t speak for the rest of the adults out there, but I know that if I were put into her place, my instinctual reaction would be to close up. In the midst of darkness and hardship, I isolate myself and even worse, can often internalize my thoughts and emotions, ruminating on them for long bouts of time. But this isn’t what Liesel does. She’s the one that builds a snowman in the coldness of a basement, describes the clouds in the sky as a long rope, extends a hand (and hug) to those who need it the most, chooses to continue playing soccer with her friends while a very real and serious war is building up, and reads novels of no relevance out loud to those around her as explosions fall outside. Her refreshing approach to life reminds me of something along the lines of what Jedidiah Jenkins wrote once –
“It made me think about the importance of lightheartedness in the midst of hardship or pain. Too much fixation on fearful or resentful thoughts will dull and exhaust the blade of your mind and spirit. The mind needs to rest, to not take things so seriously, to learn back on frivolous things. It must talk about the frivolous things like they are deadly important. And follow that with a laugh.”
And this child-like approach Liesel takes in life is infectious to the people around her. Max, a character who undoubtedly suffers some of the greatest hardships in the novel, is taken back by the simplicity and joy of Liesel’s thoughts and actions, and it rubs off on him a little as a result. He finds comfort and respite in the writing of imaginative stories. He is able to endure each day and preserve his sanity and sense of self in the brutality and injustice of the world because his mind is able to rest on the lighter, frivolous things in life and make them just as important as whatever else is going on around him.
This insight and Zusak’s masterful, beautiful writing can be encapsulated in my favourite line of the book:
“As she thought about it, she [Liesel] realized it was actually appropriate or even better –perfect– to thank him where the pages were made. She walked down the basement steps. She saw an imaginary framed photo seep into the wall –a quiet-smiled secret.”