Book Review: "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak

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I finished “The Book Thief” a long time ago, but I kept postponing the review because, honestly, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to write. Has it ever happened to you to read a book and be so utterly stunned at the end that you first needed to stare into space for a couple of minutes to take it all in, and then found yourself incapable of explaining how, why… what had just happened? I can’t say many books did this to me. I’m sure I can count them on the fingers of one hand, but “The Book Thief” sure did it for all the books out there.

How do you even begin to review such a book? I can’t say I loved it; it would be far from enough to explain how I really felt about it. I can’t say I adored it, or that I’m going to recommend it to everyone I know (because I won’t), or that it was the best thing I have ever read (I’m not sure it was). I sound confused, right? Well, let’s see if I can explain.

I’ll never say that I loved or adored “The Book Thief” because the words that would help me define how this book made me feel have yet to be invented. When I started reading it I genuinely didn’t know what to expect. Well, yes, I might have had some expectations because I knew I was about to read a bestseller that would be soon turned into a film, but still, I was quite innocent about it. After the first couple of pages I understood two things:

1. It was not going to be a book that I’d recommend to many people.
2. I would probably read it for the writing style rather than for its story.

Why not recommend it? Because the style is highly metaphorical and experimental; it is an entanglement of figures of speech, abstract ideas, dry humor, and preciousness that would normally make me cringe in a book. But not in this book. No, in “The Book Thief” precious writing works just fine. So fine, that I often felt compelled to draw out a notebook and note down entire quotes, or even paragraphs. But they don’t make sense if you take them out of their context; they lose their magic. I guess they belong to the book thief alone.

In my experience as a reader who has studied Comparative Literature for five years, I know that not everyone will enjoy this kind of writing. The book starts off slow, the narrator takes her time (I’m going to say “her” because the narrator is Death and “this” Death seemed very feminine to me), she builds up the story so slowly and smoothly, as if she had all the time in the world to tell it to the reader. Of course she does, she’s Death. She talks about colors, about her job; when you finally think Liesel’s story has picked up a bit and is going somewhere, Death makes an invasive comment just to remind you that she’s there, in case you forgot. Reading some reviews of “The Book Thief” on Goodreads, I saw that many people found Death’s seemingly random interventions annoying, and some complained that the story is a bit jumpy. No way am I going to complain about these devices. Actually, I’m not going to complain about anything. I found the writing style perfect, and I practically savored each and every word. When my friend (who had lent me the book) asked me what I thought about it, the first thing I said was: “This is real writing. I haven’t read something like this in a long time and I’m just realizing how much I’ve missed it. Read it for the writing!”

Now, maybe I should say that at some point I continued to read “The Book Thief” for the characters and the story, but the truth is that I have read this story one too many times in other novels dealing with World War II. I did read it for the characters because the author managed to make them so painfully real that there were times when I wished I had my own Max in the basement so I could properly take care of him, feed him and set him free because, God, did that poor boy suffer in the book. Why can’t we just take characters out of their paper cages and give them the life they deserve?

But, most of all, I continued to read “The Book Thief” for how much the second half of the book made me cry. Seriously, I was a complete mess. There were at least two scenes during which I cried so hard that I couldn’t follow the lines anymore, and it got annoying because I just had to continue reading. But no, I had to take a break to rub my eyes and blow my nose. Pathetic… It’s unbelievable what some books can do to us, mortals. And it’s not like I didn’t know what would happen, because if there’s something that Death is not good at, that’s building up suspense. No, she tells you what’s going to happen pages ahead. Still, when I got to that point in the novel, I was still shocked and needed time to process the information. And now I get to another device that not many authors can pull off: ditching the mystery in favor of simply telling you how it’s all going to end, and still being able to keep you hooked until the last word. About that last word… I was staring at it as if that could make more words appear on the page.

Anyway, thank God I live alone, because if I still lived with my parents and any of them had walked into the room and saw the state I was in and asked me “What happened?”… I would’ve probably answered “What do you mean what happened? ‘The Book Thief’ happened. This guy… this Zusak guy just made me cry so hard… I wanna marry him.”

Bottom line: I’m going to re-read “The Book Thief” until I learn entire chunks of it by heart.