“The Book Thief” is set in Germany during 1939-1943 and chronicles the narrative of Liesel, as told by Death, who has in his hands the book Liesel wrote during and about the incidents of those years. As a result, they are both book thieves in certain ways. Liesel steals haphazardly at first, then deliberately, yet she is never portrayed as greedy. Death takes Liesel’s notebook once she abandons it, lost in her despair, in the midst of the devastation that was once her street, which she once called home, and carries it along.
Liesel is practically an orphan. Her father was never known to her, her mother vanished after giving her to the new foster home, and her brother was killed on the train to Mulching, the dwelling of her new foster parents. Death first meets nine-year-old Liesel after her brother dies, and he sticks around just enough to see her take her first book, which was left lying in the snow beside her brother’s grave.
Her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Herbermann are underprivileged Germans who were granted a tiny stipend to care for her. Hans, a tall, calm man with silver eyes, is a house painter. He likes playing the accordion. He is the one who taught Liesel how to read and write, once he discovered the book she had stolen from beside her brother’s grave. Rosa, Liesel’s foster mother, is harsh and curses a lot. She is also depicted to have a large heart though. She works as the laundrywoman for the town’s wealthy residents. It is from the house of one such rich woman that Liesel starts stealing books (the woman does not seem to mind even though she clearly notices this). Liesel also becomes close friends with her next-door neighbor Rudy. He is about Liesel’s age and has lemon-colored hair.
Everything seems to be going fine until one night the stability of their monotonous life is broken when a young Jew arrives on their doorstep. This Jew is Max, the son of the man who had saved Hans’ life during World War I. The man had lost his life in the process of saving Hans and Hans had promised his wife that he would always be there if she ever required her help. This was the time when he had to live up to his promise.
Hans was not a Jew-hating German and things take a turn for the worse when Hans’ empathy towards a Jew gets spotted by a Nazi guard. Fearing he had brought the attention of the Nazi soldiers upon him, he asks Max to run away that very night. Even though their house is not searched, Hans along with his neighbor (Rudy’s father) is sent off to serve the German army. Amidst such failing circumstances, Liesel tries to lead as stable a life as possible. Before long, Hans comes back but the family has little time to celebrate as soon after the entire neighborhood perishes following a bombing.
The rich woman from whom Liesel used to take books gifted her an empty book where Liesel had started writing her own story and titled it “The Book Thief”. When everyone she loved perished, Liesel realizes she has nothing more that she feels like writing about. She abandons the book and this is when Death picks up the book. Death follows the life of Liesel and keeps on narrating to the readers what happens to her life thereafter.
Once Liesel dies and it’s time for Death to take her soul, Death returns the book to Liesel’s soul, from where the book had initially come.
Before going on to the main part of the review, let’s get one thing straight. Different people are bound to have different perceptions about the novel. Some say that they totally saw some twists coming while for others the suspense remained untarnished till the end. Speaking from the first-hand experience though the book is worth a try.
The best part was how the novel progressed. The events never felt like they were being imposed on the readers. The events reach the readers in all their intensity. The sadness reaching the veins of the readers really makes the characters come to life.
Another thing that is to really enhances the reading experience of the readers is the writing style of the author. Markus Zusak maintains a lucid form of writing, never really uses heavy language, therefore making room for the readers to pay more attention to the plot rather than the language. The language comes from the heart of the author and reaches the heart of the readers.
The novel also addresses a plethora of social and contemporary issues. Be it where Liesel figures out that Hitler was behind the loss of her biological family, or when Max and Liesel briefly meet each other in a Jew rally, or the horrors of the war, and the loves and lives lost in the same, Zusak brings out the melancholia in the pages and is even able to turn it into mourning in some places.
However, the ending does not quite go with the temper that the story set in the prior pages. It seems like the author was done showing too much sadness and suddenly decided to set everything right for Liesel. Life, unfortunately, had not been so giving for many such real-life Liesels though.
The reading experience had been a good one. It is one of those books after reading which you would need to close it, keep it on your lap and let out a tired but contented sigh. To get the entire experience of “The Book Thief” though you would have to go through the pages yourself. So go ahead and give it a try. But first, make sure you have a temper that would be in tune with the book. Otherwise, it would turn out to be a massive fail. It is not a book for everyone after all.