Book Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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It is a mixed bag of feelings to finish a book and be both upset and happy at how it ends. For an Australian author to have such a high degree of success, however, is extremely satisfying.

Markus Zusak is the author of The Book Thief and it was first published in 2005, before zooming into atmospheric success, winning multiple awards and spending 375 weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers list and being translated into over forty languages. It has also been developed into a movie of the same name (which now I need to put on my ‘To watch list’).

Narrated by Death, it follows the timeline of World War II and the story of Leisel Meminger as she buries her brother and steals her first book, ‘The Gravedigger’s Handbook’. She is delivered to the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann in Molching where she is soon loved and she learns to love, even if her foster ‘Mama’ is a prolific swearer and calls her names. Her foster ‘Papa’ teaches Leisel to read, using her first stolen book as an aide, every night when she wakes from nightmares. Thus begins her compulsion to appropriate other books from various places and continue her love of stories and learning to read and write. Hans also plays the accordion, and it is this instrument that settles the direction of the future for the Hubermann family, unbeknownst to them at the time.

While in Molching, Leisel gains a best friend in the form of Rudy Steiner, who loves her and dearly desires a kiss from her, however, she resists. Leisel also forms a reserved and uncertain friendship – if it can be called that – with the owner of a personal library which is a huge privilege in a town whose books were burnt by the Nazis in a bonfire.

However, it is her friendship with a Jewish fist-fighter Max Vandenburg, who takes up residence in the Hubermann basement when he arrives on their door-step seeking shelter, that is perhaps the most important of this story. Hans and Rosa ask no questions of Max, however, they tell Leisel in no uncertain terms that if she mentions the fact of the man in their basement to anyone, they will burn her precious books and they would more than likely be taken away from her and she would never see them again. This is more than enough reason for her to consent to silence. However, their growing bond is sufficient grounds for Leisel to ensure that no-one finds out about the man with feathery hair hiding behind drop-sheets beneath their house.

This story is one that will remind you that we all die eventually. We all have a story throughout life and we all have a story behind our death. And Death doesn’t enjoy taking the souls of those who are taken from Earth – in fact, Death is tired of what he does, but knows that it is forever his job to eventually carry you gently away when your time comes.

While many books have left me reeling from the story within its pages (I either can’t believe how it ended, or wish that I could stay in the world of the characters who have been brought to life), I can say with all honesty that this is the first novel in which the words on a page have made me tear up. I won’t give it away and tell you which section this happened in, because then it is a spoiler. But this in itself is my testament that Zusak is a spectacular writer. I will say no more other than that you need to read this book if you haven’t already. I’ll wait for you while you go and buy or borrow it… Done? Good. Now get reading!

Have you read ‘The Book Thief’? What did you think?

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