Posted by: Richard Frost | 12 Apr 2020

Markus Zusak: The Book Thief book review

Logo for UK news website In The NewsOriginal publication date: November 2006
Outlet: In The News

In a nutshell…
Poetic insight into fascist Germany.

What’s it all about?
The book thief is the alter-ego of a nine-year-old girl called Liesel, whose life history is narrated by none other than the Grim Reaper himself. Now Liesel has both the misfortune to be growing up in Nazi Germany and the good fortune to be sheltered from it by a vehemently anti-fascist family, the Hubermanns.

Much of the novel revolves around Liesel’s surprisingly normal childhood, in which Nazi book burnings, Hitler Youth and the persecution of the Jews are merely a backdrop to the main events in her life, such as stealing books and forbidden apples.

However, all this changes when her father’s long-forgotten wartime promise comes to fruition and a desperate Jew lands in their basement. Unwittingly, Liesel finds herself thrust into the front line against the all-too-real hatred of the Nazi state.

Who’s it by?
This is the first novel by Australian writer Markus Zusak. Previously famed as a writer of children’s books such as I am the Messenger, Zusak successfully crosses into the mainstream without abandoning his roots.

Indeed, these roots are exactly what sets his writing apart. Whether describing “the red sky still showering its beautiful ash” after an air raid, or the “dying eyes and scuffling feet” of a Jewish death march, Zusak picks apart the underlying simplicity of Nazism with a childlike eye.

The Book Thief, an award-winning novel by Australian writer Markus Zusak

As an example…
“Soon there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Fuhrer was nothing.”

Likelihood of becoming a Hollywood blockbuster
A dead cert. With film rights already snapped up by 20th Century Fox, the Book Thief has at least five characters your average Oscar-sniffing Hollywood A-lister would sell a kidney for.

What the others say
“Poised to become a classic” (USA Today)

“It’s possible to be overwhelmed and impressed by such moments in Mr Zusak’s novel. It’s also possible to wish there were more of them” (The New York Times)

So is it any good?
Clocking in at a hefty 584 pages, there’s sadly no getting away from the fact that The Book Thief takes up a few more trees than is strictly necessary. And it’s true that, no matter how beautifully written, too much weighting is given to the minutiae of everyday wartime life, such as scrumping said Granny Smiths. But those who stick around will be treated to an array of genius-tinged moments.

And there can be no doubt that Zusak soars highest when confronting the BIG issues. Exploring how Max Vandenburg, the stowaway Jew, is racked with guilt at bringing fear to the Hubermanns. Or how he fantasises about boxing the Fuhrer. Or how one honest man can choose to be complicit with fascism while another cannot.

If you persevere, then, you’ll find moments aplenty in which Zusak elegantly tackles the human fallout from the fascist century. Just as long as you overlook those bloody apples.



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