I have owned this book for about three years, and have been recommending it to customers at the bookstore for longer, but I haven’t gotten around to reading it. I’m not entirely sure why I was so hesitant – I guess I expected it to be more surreal, more experimental, darker than it actually is. Also, with few exceptions, I tend to hesitate over YA novels because it’s harder to cut through the hype to find something that really is good.
This is a very powerful book, and I actually feel bad for not liking it more than I did.
At the age of nine, Liesel is sent to live with a foster family in Nazi Germany. Her “career” as a book thief begins when she finds a copy of a book called The Grave Digger’s Handbook beside her brother’s grave and decides to keep it. Her foster father, Hans, teaches her how to read the book, and reading becomes the foundation of a very close relationship. Liesel continues to steal books – first from a Nazi book burning and later from the private library of the mayor’s wife who has fired Liesel’s foster mother. Hans is hesitant to support the Nazi party and eventually risks the family’s safety by allowing a Jewish man – the son of a man who saved Hans’ life in the first world war – to hide in their basement.
I like the idea of using Death to narrate a story that takes place in Nazi Germany, where death was never far from anyone’s mind. I thought Zusak used this tool effectively about 3/4 of the time but there were times where the narrative voice was inconsistent and it bothered me when Death would say things like, “That’s what that metaphor meant. See what I did? Wasn’t that clever?” Those moments served no purpose and, more often than not, took me out of the story. He was also bad about self-referencing his non-linear narration by saying things like, “Liesel doesn’t know what I just told you. I’ll circle back around to her now.” I felt like I knew where the story was heading before I was even halfway through it and I didn’t see the point in sloughing through another two hundred pages to read about events that had already been spoiled.
That being said, I thought that the story was an excellent one, and I thought that the prose was lovely. Liesel was a well-drawn character, with lots of flaws and lots of heart. The same can be said about Hans and Rosa, and especially Rudy. Zusak is shining light on some very difficult aspects of human history, and he does so with a lot of grace and honesty.