Have you ever been haunted by a book that its characters are forever etched into your memories? Have you felt the magic of a story, created just through the power of simple words by an amazing author? Have you loved characters that their life and experiences seemed more real to you than reality? Have you ever read a story narrated by death? In my case, the answer to all these questions are a yes and for me that book was The Book Thief, a book of such immense beauty that I absolutely loved every bit of it. It is a classic that must be read by every person who wishes to discover the power of simple yet effective writing.
Narrated by death, The Book Thief is the story of a nine-year old girl, Liesel Meminger. She is sent to live with Hans and Rosa Hubermann, who are to be her foster parents in Nazi Germany. Death first encounters Liesel when her brother dies and stays back long enough to watch her steal her first book The Grave Digger’s Handbook from the cemetery after it falls from the coat of a young grave-digger. Despite not knowing how to read or write, she is fascinated by the book. In addition, though she is reluctant to stay with her foster parents, Hans Hubermann gradually wins her over with his paternal affection and love. As Hans begins to teach Liesel to read and write on one hand, on the other hand she begins to make new friends including a boy named Rudy Steiner. Rudy and Liesel then go on a series of adventures, most of which are centered around stealing especially books from the house of the Mayor.
As the story progresses, one night a Jew named Max Vandenburg enters their home. He is the son of a friend of Hans from the first world war, a man who had taught him to play the accordion and who had indirectly even saved his life. Hans had also promised his widowed wife to help her in case she ever needed it. Though Hans is a German, he does not hate Jews, although he is aware of the immense risk that he is taking by allowing Max to live in their basement. Slowly but gradually, an amazing friendship grows between Max and Liesel, which is so beautifully depicted especially when he writes a story for her called The Standover Man, which he presents to her as a gift.
A book in my opinion always has two important aspects, one the story and two the nature of writing. Yes I agree that they are not different but that they heavily impact each other. If a story is nice but written in a shoddy manner, then it loses its entire beauty. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is an example of ingenious writing that proves that the author has immense talent and caliber. His writing is poetic, haunting, lyrical and unforgettable to say the least. Death is such a memorable character who is depicted in a manner that is both poignant and heart touching, that it is difficult not to feel sympathy for him. (Weird, right?) So not just Death, but Liesel, Hans, Rosa, Rudy, Max feel like characters that you have met and interacted with on a personal level. This book is therefore a proof of the exemplary writing talent of the author. It is definitely one of those rare stories that comes along once in a lifetime.
Though The Book Thief is based on the underlying theme of the Holocaust, many things save the book from becoming sad and depressing. A lively humor coupled with richness of characters ensure that the readers are hooked right from the first page. Also, another interesting aspect of the book that I really liked was the fact that this book was so balanced, where ordinary Germans were in the same danger of losing their lives as the Jews themselves.
I have always admired authors who are able to conjure a whole new world just with the power of their words. And books like The Book Thief are proof that good writing is still very much alive and it is only writers like Zusak who can use words to paint vivid and visual landscapes that I have never encountered before. In short, the novel reminds me of an elaborate yet seamlessly integrated play where every scene is complete and unique in its own way. In conclusion, I cannot recommend a better book to read, receive, or gift than The Book Thief. It has the same magic and simplicity that I encountered only once before and that was while reading the Harry Potter series.
About Markus Zusak
Born in 1975, Markus Zusak is a prominent and well-known Australian author. He has so far published five major books, namely The Underdog (1999), Fighting Ruben Wolfe (2000), When Dogs Cry (2001), The Messenger (20002) and The Book Thief (2005). The Book Thief was translated into more than 40 languages and spent a total of 375 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Despite eight years of its release, the book is still one of the most best-selling and critically acclaimed novel by the author.
Three books by the author namely The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe and When Dogs Cry are all internationally acclaimed novels and received a lot of honors and awards in both the USA and Australia.
Published in 2002, The Messenger was awarded the Australian Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Award (Older Readers) and the NSW Premier’s Literary Award (Ethel Turner Prize) both in 2003 and the Printz Honour in America. Besides winning numerous national readers choice awards across Europe, the book also won the highly prestigious Deutscher Jugendliteratur prize from Germany as well.
It was however The Book Thief that established Markus Zusak as an author of international reputation. Till date, The Book Thief has held the prime position on many lists like the Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and the New York Times bestseller and in various countries across America, Europe and Asia. In addition, it has also been in the top five bestsellers in the UK and several other territories. It has won many prestigious awards like the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (2006), School Library Journal for Best Book of the Year (2006), Daniel Elliott Peace Award (2006), Michael L. Printz Award (2007) among others. Further, The Guardian described The Book Thief as “a novel of breathtaking scope, masterfully told.” while The New York Times stated the book was “Brilliant and hugely ambitious…the kind of book that can be life-changing.” and The Age called The Book Thief “an original, moving, beautifully written book.”
Talking about his inspiration for The Book Thief, Markus Zusak says, ‘I grew up in Sydney and had a pretty normal childhood with my brother and two sisters. We lived most of our lives in the backyard, doing typical Australian things, but once in a while, it wasn’t Sydney anymore – because our parents told us their stories. That was when a piece of Europe entered our household, and our lives. It was never an organized thing. My mum and dad never sat us down and said, ‘Now we’re going to tell you where we came from.’ It was spontaneous. Something would happen, usually in the kitchen, and then came a story. We would hear about cities of fire, bombs shaking the ground, and what it was like to emerge from underground to discover that everything had changed. One evening, I remember my mother telling us about something else she witnessed as a child, which has stayed with me a long time. She told us of the time she saw Jewish people and other so-called criminals marched through her small town, on their way to Dachau. At the back of the line, an old man, totally emaciated, couldn’t keep up. When a teenage boy saw this, he brought the man a piece of bread and the man fell to his knees and held the boy’s ankles, thanking him…That was when a soldier marched over, tore the bread from the man’s hands and whipped him for taking it. Then, he chased down the boy and whipped him for giving him the bread in the first place. It was a story of great cruelty and kindness, simultaneously. I didn’t know it at the time, but almost all of the stories my parents told were full of opposites: right and wrong, fear and relief, destruction and humanity. The other point I didn’t realize was that these stories became like a second language to me, and when I became a writer, that language was already there – just waiting. It was waiting for me to scratch the surface, reach in and pull it out as the beginnings of a book. At first, The Book Thief was supposed to be a small novel – only a hundred pages or so – but the more time I spent with it, the more it grew, in every way. As three years of work went by, it changed from a book that meant something to me to a book that meant everything, and I’m very grateful for it. I’m also grateful to every reader who has picked it up and given it a chance. They’ve been more generous to The Book Thief than I could ever have imagined.’’ The author also goes on to explain as to why death was the main narrator of the story, ‘The simple answer is that I thought of the expression that war and death are like best friends, so who better to tell a story set during World War II? After all, Death was everywhere during that time…The truth, though, is that I stumbled across it, which is usually what happens with our best ideas; the trick is to recognize them as they stare you in the face and not ignore them…This time around I was working in a high school with some kids and we wrote about color. I wrote about three deaths in that story and realized I’d used Death as the narrator. I immediately thought, ‘Maybe I should use this idea for that book set in Nazi Germany…’ I didn’t ask myself why.
I’ve often said that even in the parts of The Book Thief that embarrass me now, it’s the voice of Death that holds it all together. But it wasn’t as easy as that sounds. There were many problems, like I wrote 200 pages with Death narrating till I realized he was too macabre – he was enjoying his work too much and operated with a sense of sadistic pleasure…So I changed everything so that Liesel herself would narrate – which also didn’t work because it gave me new problems. (Despite my having the experience of a German-Austrian background, Liesel was the most Australian-sounding German girl in the history of all books everywhere)…but that’s the great thing about being writer:
EVERYONE THINKS YOU HAVE A GREAT IMAGINATION – BUT THE TRUTH IS, YOU JUST HAVE A LOT OF PROBLEMS.
The beauty of it is that just as necessity is the mother of all invention, your purest imagination is in solving your problems – to find a way to get it all to work. In the case of Death? I went to a simple 3rd person narration (which was everything I’d been trying to avoid in the first place) until it hit me. I heard the last line of the book in my head and thought, ‘That’s it. Death is haunted by us. He is all-powerful but for the fact that he’s tired, and due to seeing humans mostly at their worst, he tells Liesel’s story to remind him that humans can be beautiful and selfless and worthwhile’ – and once I had that voice, I started the book all over again, borrowing from all the so-called failed drafts, and got there, somehow, in the end.’’
The Book Thief is also the only book to feature on both the USA and UK World Book Night Lists in 2012, and has now been adapted into a major motion picture. Directed by the Emmy Award winner, Brian Percival, the movie version of The Book Thief had prominent stars like Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush (Shine, The King’s Speech) and Academy Award nominee Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves, Anna Karenina). It also includes exciting new talents Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch, and Sophie Nelisse (Monsieur Lazhar), with Nelisse cast as the main protagonist, Liesel Meminger.
Markus Zusak grew up in Sydney, Australia, and currently resides there with his wife and two children.
The only way I can depict the beauty of The Book Thief is through some quotes and lines from the book. I will also try not to list out the entire book. (Also sometimes I wish there was a better way of tracking the lines that I loved.)
- “The only thing worse than a boy who hates you: a boy who loves you.’
- “I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.
- “After ten minutes or so, what was most prominent in the cellar was a kind of non-movement. Their bodies were welded together and only their feet changed position or pressure. Stillness was shackled to their faces. They watched each other and waited.”
- “Like most misery, it started with apparent happiness.”
- “It kills me sometimes, how people die.”
- “As he looked uncomfortably at the human shape before him, the young man’s voice was scraped out and handed across the dark like it was all that remained of him.”
- “Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day. That was the business of hiding a Jew.”
- “The book was released gloriously from his hand. It opened and flapped, the pages rattling as it covered ground in the air. More abruptly than expected, it stopped and appeared to be sucked towards the water. It clapped when it hit the surface and began to float downstream.”
- “So many humans. So many colours. They keep triggering inside me. They harass my memory. I see them tall in their heaps, all mounted on top of each other. There is air like plastic, a horizon like setting glue. There are skies manufactured by people, punctured and leaking, and there are soft, coal-coloured clouds, beating, like black hearts. And then. There is death. Making his way through all of it. On the surface: unflappable, unwavering. Below: unnerved, untied, and undone.”
- “I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race—that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.
- None of those things, however, came out of my mouth.
- All I was able to do was turn to Liesel Meminger and tell her the only truth I truly know. I said it to the book thief and I say it now to you.
- I am haunted by humans.”
- “A DEFINITION NOT FOUND IN THE DICTIONARY:Not leaving: an act of trust and love, often deciphered by children”
- “I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”
- “She leaned down and looked at his lifeless face and Leisel kissed her best friend, Rudy Steiner, soft and true on his lips. He tasted dusty and sweet. He tasted like regret in the shadows of trees and in the glow of the anarchist’s suit collection. She kissed him long and soft, and when she pulled herself away, she touched his mouth with her fingers…She did not say goodbye. She was incapable, and after a few more minutes at his side, she was able to tear herself from the ground. It amazes me what humans can do, even when streams are flowing down their faces and they stagger on…”
- “Usually we walk around constantly believing ourselves. “I’m okay” we say. “I’m alright”. But sometimes the truth arrives on you and you can’t get it off. That’s when you realize that sometimes it isn’t even an answer–it’s a question. Even now, I wonder how much of my life is convinced.”
- “He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world. She was the book thief without the words.
- Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain.”
- “A small but noteworthy note. I’ve seen so many young men over the years who think they’re running at other young men. They are not. They are running at me.”
- “If only she could be so oblivious again, to feel such love without knowing it, mistaking it for laughter. ”
- “His soul sat up. It met me. Those kinds of souls always do – the best ones. The ones who rise up and say “I know who you are and I am ready. Not that I want to go, of course, but I will come.” Those souls are always light because more of them have been put out. More of them have already found their way to other places.”
- “How about a kiss, Saumensch?” He stood waist-deep in the water for a few moments longer before climbing out and handing her the book. His pants clung to him, and he did not stop walking. In truth, I think he was afraid. Rudy Steiner was scared of the book thief’s kiss. He must have longed for it so much. He must have loved her so incredibly hard. So hard that he would never ask for her lips again and would go to his grave without them.
- “I carried [Rudy] softly through the broken street…with him I tried a little harder [at comforting]. I watched the contents of his soul for a moment and saw a black-painted boy calling the name Jesse Owens as he ran through an imaginary tape. I saw him hip-deep in some icy water, chasing a book, and I saw a boy lying in bed, imagining how a kiss would taste from his glorious next-door neighbor. He does something to me, that boy. Every time. It’s his only detriment. He steps on my heart. He makes me cry.”
- “The consequence of this is that I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both.”
- “Once, words had rendered Liesel useless, but now, when she sat on the floor, with the mayor’s wife at her husband’s desk, she felt an innate sense of power. It happened every time she deciphered a new word or piece together a sentence. She was a girl. In Nazi Germany. How fitting that she was discovering the power of words.”
- “He wanted to walk out – Lord how he wanted to (or at least he wanted to want to) – but he knew he wouldn’t. It was much the same as the way he left his family in Stuttgart, under a veil of fabricated loyalty. To live. Living was living.The price was guilt and shame.’’
- “Liesel, however, did not buckle. She sprayed her words directly into the woman’s eyes.“You and your husband. Sitting up here.” Now she became spiteful. More spiteful and evil than she thought herself capable. The injury of words.Yes, the brutality of words”
- “A small fact: You are going to die….does this worry you?”
- “One was a book thief. The other stole the sky.”
- “He laughed. “Good night, book thief.” It was the first time Liesel had been branded with her title, and she couldn’t hide the fact that she liked it very much. As we’re both aware, she’d stolen books previously, but in late October 1941, it became official. That night, Liesel Meminger truly became the book thief.’’
- “I guess humans like to watch a little destruction. Sand castles, houses of cards, that’s where they begin. Their great skills is their capacity to escalate.”
- “It’s a small story really, about, among other things: A girl I Some words I An accordionist I Some fanatical Germans A Jewish fist fighter I And quite a lot of thievery”
- “On many counts, taking a boy like Rudy Steiner was robbery–so much life, so much to live for–yet somehow, I’m certain he would have loved to see the frightening rubble and the swelling of the sky on the night he passed away. He’d have cried and turned and smiled if only he could have seen the book thief on her hands and knees, next to his decimated body. He’d have been glad to witness her kissing his dusty, bomb-hit lips.Yes, I know it. In the darkness of my dark-beating heart, I know. He’d have loved it all right. You see? Even death has a heart.”
- “I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race – that rarely do I ever simply estimate it.”
- “She said it out loud, the words distributed into a room that was full of cold air and books. Books everywhere! Each wall was armed with overcrowded yet immaculate shelving. It was barely possible to see paintwork. There were all different styles and sizes of lettering on the spines of the black, the red, the gray, the every-colored books. It was one of the most beautiful things Liesel Meminger had ever seen. With wonder, she smiled. That such a room existed!
- “A human doesn’t have a heart like mine. The human heart is a line, whereas my own is a circle, and I have the endless ability to be in the right place at the right time. The consequence of this is that I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both. Still, they have one thing I envy. Humans, if nothing else, have the good sense to die.
- “Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up each soul that day as if it were newly born. I even kissed a few weary, poisoned cheeks. I listened to their last, gasping cries. Their vanishing words. I watched their love visions and freed them from their fear.”
- “Goodbye, Papa, you saved me. You taught me to read. No one can play like you. I’ll never drink champagne. No one can play like you.”-Liesel”
- “I…” He struggled to answer. “When everything was quiet, I went up to the corridor and the curtain in the living room was open just a crack… I could see outside. I watched, only for a few seconds.” He had not seen the outside world for twenty-two months.
- There was no anger or reproach. It was Papa who spoke. How did it look?” Max lifted his head, with great sorrow and great astonishment. “There were stars,” he said. “They burned by eyes.” “It’s hard to not like a man who not only notices the colors, but speaks them”
- “I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A color will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.”
- “Max,” she said. He turned and briefly closed his eyes as the girl continued. There was once a strange, small man,”she said. Her arms were loose but her hands were fists at her side. “But there was a word shaker,too.”One of the Jews on his way to Dachau had stopped walking now. He stood absolutely still as the others swerved morosely around him, leaving him completely alone. His eyes staggered, and it was so simple. The words were given across from the girl to the Jew. They climbed on to him. The next time she spoke, the questions stumbled from her mouth. Hot tears fought for room in her eyes as she would not let them out. Better to stand resolute and proud. Let the words do all of it. “Is it really you? the young man asked,” she said. ” Is it from your cheek that I took the seed.?” Max Vandenburg remained standing. He did not drop to his knees. People and Jews and clouds all stopped. They watched. As he stood, Max looked first at the girl and then stared directly into the sky who was wide and blue and magnificent. There were heavy beams– planks of son– falling randomly, wonderfully to the road. Clouds arched their backs to look behind as they started again to move on. “It’s such a beautiful day,” he said, and his voice was in many pieces. A great day to die. A great day to die,like this. Liesel walked at him. She was courageous enough to reach out and hold his bearded face. “Is it really you,Max?” Such a brilliant German day and its attentive crowd. He let his mouth kiss her palm. “Yes, Liesel, it’s me,” and he held the girl’s hand in his face and cried onto her fingers. He cried as the soldiers came and a small collection of insolent Jews stood and watched.”
- “When death captures me,’ the boy vowed, ‘he will feel my fist on his face.’ Personally, I quite like that. Such stupid gallantry. I like that a lot.”
- “They say that war is death’s best friend, but I must offer you a different point of view on that one. To me, war is like the new boss who expects the impossible. He stands over your shoulder repeating one thin, incessantly: ‘Get it done, get it done.’ So you work harder. You get the job done. The boss, however, does not thank you. He asks for more.”
- “The point is, it didn’t really matter what the book was about. It was what it meant that was important.”
- “It’s the leftover humans. The survivors. They’re the ones I can’t stand to look at, although on many occasions I still fail. I deliberately seek out the colors to keep my mind off them, but now and then, I witness the ones who are left behind, crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair, and surprises. They have punctured hearts. They have beaten lungs. Which in turn brings me to the subject I am telling you about tonight, or today, or whatever the hour and color. It’s the story of one of those perpetual survivors –an expert at being left behind.”
- “But then, is there cowardice in the acknowledgment of fear? Is there cowardice in being glad that you lived?
- “***A SMALL THEORY***People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and its ends, but to me it’s quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses. In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them. ”
- “So many humans. So many colors.”
- “It was one of those moments of perfect tiredness, of having conquered not only the work at hand, but the night who had blocked the way.”
- “Yes, often, I am reminded of her, and in one of my vast array of pockets, I have kept her story to retell it. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt–an immense leap of an attempt–to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it. Here it is. One of a handful. The Book Thief. If you feel like it, come with me. I’ll tell you a story. I’ll show you something.”
- “The best word shakers were the ones who understood the true power of words. They were the ones who could climb the highest. One such word shaker was a small, skinny girl. She was renowned as the best word shaker of her region because she knew how powerless a person could be WITHOUT words. That’s why she could climb higher than anyone else. She had desire. She was hungry for them.’
This is certainly one of the best books that I have read so far. It is so beautifully written with descriptions of the skies, people and places that you will not find anywhere else. The immense bravery of Liesel , the amazing dedication of Hans to his family the longing of Rudy for one kiss and Death’s turmoil at the decisions that he compelled to take….all these characters have left an indelible mark on my mind. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and if I had to steal one book in the world, it would be this one. Though the book is more than 550 pages long, I guarantee you that this is time well spent. And I doubt, you will ever find a book that has Death as its narrator inspiring bravery, truth, life, hope and love in such a beautiful way.