The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief I know what you’re thinking: how could I possibly have not read The Book Thief until now? My answer is that I really don’t know. My excuse is that I wasn’t paying much attention to new releases at the time when the book was published in 2005 so I missed all the hype surrounding it. Since then I have just never felt like reading it; there has always been another book calling to me more loudly. Now that I’ve finally read it, of course, the next question is: was it worth waiting for? And my answer to that is, sadly, no. Not only am I one of the last people in the world to have read The Book Thief, it seems that I’m also one of the only people not to have loved it.

The novel is narrated by Death, who is experiencing one of the busiest times of his career – World War II. Death is everywhere during the war, but he has chosen to focus on the story of a nine-year-old German girl called Liesel Meminger. Liesel’s parents are communists and as the novel begins in 1939, Liesel and her brother, Werner, are being sent to live with a foster family in the small town of Molching. Werner dies during the journey and this is when Death has his first encounter with Liesel – and when he first witnesses her stealing a discarded book, which happens to be called The Grave-Diggers Handbook.

Liesel can’t read but she is fascinated by books and words and this is what sustains her as she faces the challenges of settling into a new home. Her kind-hearted foster father, Hans Hubermann, teaches her to read and with the help of her new friend, Rudy Steiner, Liesel soon begins to add to her small library, becoming the ‘book thief’ of the title. Despite the atrocities going on in the world around her, Liesel’s life on Himmel Street, Molching, is relatively peaceful until the arrival of Max Vandenburg, a Jew in need of help – and a basement to hide in.

I said that I didn’t love the book, but this doesn’t mean I didn’t like it at all, because I did. My problem was the writing style – or I should say, styles, as there are so many all incorporated into one book. There are some very short sentences, some partial sentences, nouns used as verbs, dictionary definitions dropped into the text, and parts of the story told in the form of illustrations and cartoons. Sometimes Death interrupts his narration to talk directly to the reader, to make an observation or to hint at something that will happen later in the book.

It’s certainly creative and unique – I’ve never read anything quite like it – and I can see that a lot of readers will absolutely love it, but I am just not a fan of writing that feels experimental or gimmicky. I don’t even like it when a book is written in the present tense! I find that when a novel is written in an unusual way I end up being distracted by the writing instead of being drawn into the story and the lives of the characters. While I was reading The Book Thief I felt that I was never quite there on Himmel Street with Liesel and Rudy and the others; I could never forget that I was reading a book.

I did like the idea of the story being narrated by Death. I’m aware that this is not a very original concept and that there are other books that also use Death as a narrator (some of Terry Pratchett’s, for example) but I haven’t personally read any so it was something different as far as I was concerned! There were other things that I liked – the development of Liesel’s relationship with her foster parents; the stories Max writes while he’s hiding in the basement; watching Liesel discover the joys of reading – and by the time I started to approach the final chapters of the book, I found that Zusak had made me care about the characters and their fates. There’s no doubt that this is a very moving book and I was close to tears once or twice near the end.

Despite being a little bit disappointed by this book, I completely understand why it is so popular and why so many people love it. I know I’m in a tiny minority, so please, if you haven’t read it yet don’t let me put you off – try it for yourself and see what you think!

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32 thoughts on “The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I thought I would struggle with the writing style because of the short sentences (they annoy me) but I got drawn in and hooked on it – though I did have to make myself keep reading at first. I’m glad I persevered, though, because I did love it in the end.

    • Helen says:

      The short sentences annoyed me too – I thought they felt disjointed and difficult to read. I did get drawn in eventually but was still a bit disappointed overall.

  2. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    I also have not read it. Now I don’t know what to do! It’s one of those I may pick up just to see what everyone else is talking about, but I might have the same issues with it as you.

  3. Lisa says:

    I’m another who hasn’t read it yet. It was the choice one month of one of my book clubs, but I missed that meeting. It’s been on my “someday” list but never a priority. Maybe because I love Terry Pratchett’s DEATH, & I wasn’t sure how this would compare

    • Helen says:

      I had been meaning to read it for years but it never really felt like a priority for me either. It seems I was right to be hesitant about it. I’m sure it would be a great book for the right reader but I just wasn’t the right reader.

  4. Catherine says:

    I read it last year, there are so many books coming out, we can’t all read them!
    It is take me a while to get used to the way it was written so I understand what you say. Personnaly overall I loved it. We all have our opinion on a book and it is interesting to see another point of view 😉

  5. Ocean Bream says:

    I read this when I was sixteen (five years ago now) and I must admit it shook me more than I anticipated it would. Mostly, perhaps, because sixteen is such an impressionable age and one finds that they feel things more strongly at sixteen. Well I did anyway. I found myself weeping actual tears, and that is no normal feat! I informed everybody I met afterwards that this was a great book, it MUST be, since it managed to move me to tears, something no other book has ever done, ever!

    I will always have a special place in my heart for The Book Thief. I haven’t read it again since that time and I doubt I ever will. I am afraid I will be disappointed, or that it will lose its allure in some way or other. I almost didn’t watch the film either! Especially since the absolute mash up they made of the Hobbit. But I heard Zusak wrote the screenplay so it warmed me to it and it wasn’t so bad.

    Your point of view interested me, it was refreshing and honest. I was also surprised to learn that it was loved by a lot of people! I wasn’t aware that it was so popular.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for your comment. I always feel bad when I have to write a negative review – most of the other reviews of this book that I’ve seen have been overwhelmingly positive!

      I love re-reading my favourite books, but I can understand your reasons for not wanting to read this one again. Tastes can change so much over time and it would be a shame if it disappointed you on a second read.

  6. heavenali says:

    I did love it, but we can’t all react to things in the same way. The style of writing is not my favourite either, but I just found myself totally hooked. I must say it was the first and only book I have read narrated by death I hadn’t realised it was such a common device.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Hi There 🙂 I also came late to the reading of this book; although I bought a copy when it was first published and could not ‘get into it’ then. I have revisited this book many times, and a have yet to finish it for similar reasons to yours. The writing, though conceptually original, is simply that. I am sure I will continue to re-visit this book until I finish it!

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for commenting. It’s good to know that I’m not the only person who had problems with the writing style. I think it’s worth finishing the book, though, because it does get better towards the end!

  8. Delia (Postcards from Asia) says:

    I stayed away from this book for a while because of all the hype but secretly always wanted to read it. And two years ago when I finally did, it broke my heart. I love it, the story, that amazing writing…I took my favorite lines from the book and arranged them into a sort of poem and read it out loud. It will always have a special place in my heart.
    I’m glad you liked the book, even if you didn’t love it. We all take different things from books.

    The movie is lukewarm , but I cried the whole time just thinking about the book and because I knew what was going to happen. Geoffrey Rush was my favorite, he did a really great job as Liesel’s adoptive father.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad this is such a special book for you, Delia. I love the idea of making a poem from your favourite lines!

      I would like to see the film now that I’ve read the book. Hans Hubermann was one of my favourite characters so I’m pleased to hear Geoffrey Rush did a good job.

  9. Jo says:

    According to my Goodreads account I gave this five stars. After searching for my review. I was also late to reading this and I think the film has given the book a new resurgence. I undestand the difficulty in reading it as conceptually it is a book which is very different and I have never read anything like that before.

    I liked the book but didn’t love it and I would not go back and reread it. That I think speaks volumes.

  10. Charlie says:

    I loved the writing style, but I can definitely understand you disliking it. It’s something that’s not going to work for everyone (I wonder if my love of Pratchett’s work helped in this instance). That you liked the rest of it shows that it would’ve likely worked for you if it had been written by someone else, which is good to consider.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I would probably have preferred a similar book set in Nazi Germany by a different author, as I did like the setting and the concept, but not the writing. I’m glad to hear you loved it, though!

  11. Shoshanah says:

    I actually felt similar to you. I didn’t think it was necessarily an awful book, it just didn’t seem to live up to the hype everyone else built for it. A little disappointing, especially since I was expecting so much more from it.

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