Review: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

It kills me, sometimes, how people die.

This is an unusual review for me. Normally, I like to let a book settle a bit, think about what I want to say and give my opinions time to come together. I finished The Book Thief only 9 hours ago. By the time I got through the last CD I was a sniffling, sobbing mess. It has been a long time since I was so moved by a book and I woke up with the urge to write about it.
Leisel Meminger is the book thief of the title and the story is narrated by Death. Death’s voice is interesting – he has some degree of omniscience, as he is able to tell everyone’s story in great detail. He sees enormous suffering but is always a bit apart from it, although he is sometimes touched by individual stories, as in Leisel’s case; the thought that even Death is moved by the enormous loss of life in a war is somehow comforting. He talks about the difficulties of his job and the frustrations of dealing with his “boss” in a way that is so familiar that you sometimes forget what sort of job he’s doing.

The story takes place in Nazi Germany during World War II. Leisel has lost her family and is placed with Hans and Rosa Hubermann as a foster child. She brings with her her first stolen book – The Gravedigger’s Handbook – and there are many more to come. Hans uses it to teach Leisel to read and stealing books becomes an important part of her life.

Words are very important in this book and they are vividly described. They have weight, taste, color and texture. They drop from people’s mouths, they march across the room, they are like living creatures, whether they are spoken aloud or hidden in the heart. Max, the Jewish refugee hiding in their basement, explains their importance in the story he writes, The Word Shaker.

Death’s narration is full of details, definitions and interesting tidbits. He goes far beyond foreshadowing and often tells you important details – who is going to die and how – but each event is still exquisitely painful. The advance knowledge does not soften the blow, as Death hopes, but instead infuses the story with a sort of melancholy, knowing how soon the end will come. As I said, I was deeply moved by this book and these characters. It has been some time since I felt so swept up in a story.

I’m glad that I picked this up as an audio book. I don’t speak any German, and the reader, Allan Corduner, does a fabulous job. His accent sounds authentic, the pronounciations are smooth and not stilted, his voices are clear and distinct. The book is well-suited to an audio adaptation; after all, it is Death telling a story.

The Book Thief was originally published in Australia for adults, although it has been marketed in the US as Young Adult fiction. The story of how the book took shape is an interesting one, as it is based on stories that Zusak was told as a child.

This book is easily in my top 5 for 2008. It is a moving story that gets my highest recommendation. Order yours at

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