Book Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Too rarely do I real general fiction or modern literature and sometimes I wish I read more of it. The sort of work that wins The Booker Prize tends to be presented as rather stuffy, and so heavy-going that I’d rather run a marathon. This attitude is not always justified though. There are some genuine gems out there and when a book comes so heavily recommended – and sounds intriguing at the same time with a slight dash of the “different” then I can be usually drawn to it. The Book Thief is one such book.

It is Nazi Germany and the concentration camps are filling up. When the authorities discover that Liesel Memminger’s natural parents are Communists, she is sent to live with foster parents. At the start of the book her father is already dead. Her mother is sent to Dachau concentration camp for a less than pleasant ending. On the journey her brother dies too and after the service, the gravedigger leaves a book behind which our young protagonist takes. It is The Gravediggers Handbook and the theft begins Liesel’s fascination with books.

She ends up with colourful foster parents in suburban Munich, slowly adapting to life in the city. Her best friend Rudy Steiner regularly gets into trouble for blacking up and pretending to be Jesse Owens (one man who caused Hitler so much embarrassment at the 1936 Olympic Games). Together the pair go through the pains of childhood in the unique situation that is Nazi Germany. During her stay, the regime increasingly cracks down on undesirable material, including books. This presents Liesel with the opportunity to continue her habit of liberating books from various places. More than once she bravely takes several directly from the bonfire. Then, one day her foster parents give sanctuary to a local Jew. This adds a further plot twist in which Liesel develops a little bit of a friendship with the man.

This is a truly wonderful book. I cannot praise it enough and I would have to say now that it is in my Top 10 books of all time. Narrated by Death far from being a passive narrator we often see him going about his daily work of reaping souls from the destruction around him. What a wonderful narrator he is, treating the situation with a shrewd dispassion we can expect. In this, the reader is allowed to experience his/her own emotions along with Liesel.

This is a book about the power of words: how they liberate and how they enslave. It is about how words escape from harsh realities of such a dark period in history and how they could be used to shape or destroy society. It is the perfect book for a writer to truly appreciate the craft. It flows well, has some large and colourful characters and its fair share of humour and tragedy. This is what modern literary fiction should be about and its award is much deserved. I have no doubt that I will return to this book again in the future.

A flawless 5/5

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