There is an incredibly amount of hype and acclaim surrounding The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak and it is all deserved. It is successfully conceptual in the best possible way. It is an innovative book for young people (although I think it was more literary fiction than young adult fiction) about the Holocaust – which is not small feat.
The book is basically a series of narrative lyric poems, following young German orphan Liesel Meminger, living in a poor neighborhood outside of Munich in Nazi Germany. The twist, besides the poetic quality, is that the book is narrated by Death.
Liesel deals with the tragedy and lack of control in her life through an impressive career of stealing books. Seeing her grow up, watching her neighborhood transform through the stages of WW2, and hearing the viewpoint of death camps, conditions for Soviet soldiers, and the Normandy invasion all through the lens of Death is fascinating. It is strange twist on the omnipresent narrator.
The characters in Liesel’s life are richly imagined and complexly explained. A particular favorite is her best friend, who after the 1936 achieves neighborhood fame by covering his entire body in coal dust and pretending to be Jesse Owens.
Without giving any spoilers away, I will say the book contains a lot of the traditional elements of holocaust fiction (i.e. main character realizing Jews are not the enemy, etc.). What is nontraditional, aside from the POV, writing style, and structure, is the theme of the importance of words, reading, writing and books. The books in Liesel’s collection, ranging from a grave digging how to guide, to a banned book stolen from a bonfire, to a handmade account of a Jew – all have symbolic and thematic significance.
My only criticism is that while the book is beautiful, I didn’t find it engaging. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it.