The Book Thief is one of those books that everyone I knew was raving about five years ago, yet I somehow never managed to sit down and read it. I have been drawn to books about the Holocaust since I was a nine-year-old reading Child of the Holocaust, The Upstairs Room, Number the Stars, and The Diary of a Young Girl, so there’s no good reason that The Book Thief didn’t make it into my hands until now. But here we are. And unfortunately, I’m about to offend everyone’s little Book Thief-loving hearts.
The Book Thief follows the story of ten-year-old Liesel Meminger, a German girl whose life is turned upside down when she is sent to a foster family right before the outbreak of WWII. From the first few pages I was immediately turned off by this book. Perhaps it was because I was expecting a simple, straight-forward story like I remember the books above being, and that is not what I found. For starters, the narrator is Death. It was immediately clear to me that Zusak was setting out to write an artistic book, not just a simple story. Death uses metaphor liberally, which wouldn’t be a problem except that half of the metaphors made zero sense and merely left me confused. The other half were beautifully written. Zusak could have done us all a favor by cutting the former half.
Then there are these weird bold sections where Death interrupts the story to add something—a definition, an extra explanation, a spoiler. This device is what bothered me the most, particularly because Death is the one telling the story—so it made no sense for him to interrupt himself. As annoying as I found these interruptions, I did finally manage to get used to them about halfway through the book.
The story itself was actually very good.
The characters were beautifully formed and evoked a plethora of emotions. Each chapter recounted a small piece of Liesel’s daily life from 1939–1943 (although a few chapters focused on other characters, including Death himself). Some stories were funny and sweet…some were violent and heart-wrenching. The story is a worthy and engaging one; but I will warn you, it does not end happily (it’s a Holocaust story, what do you expect?) Something that makes The Book Thief unique is that the protagonist is German, while so many similar books are told from the Jewish point of view. What was detrimental for me about The Book Thief was solely Zusak’s writing style. I should have kept a list titled, “Sentences I Hated in The Book Thief.” For example: “Every night, Liesel would nightmare.” The use of “nightmare” as a verb was like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.
To be fair, after my initial repulsion I did manage to find a way into the story and enjoyed the second half enough to ignore the failed metaphors and awkward word choices. Plus, the story of a girl discovering her love for words and books is the perfect way into a book loving girl’s heart.
In conclusion, I don’t think that The Book Thief lived up to the hype, and I would probably not recommend it to anyone as a first choice. However, it’s not a complete waste of time if you want a fictional Holocaust story that’s a little different from the rest, but that will still break your heart into a thousand tiny pieces.