The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Take one part The Diary of Anne Frank, one part The Hunger Games, one part Jane Eyre and one part the Catcher in the Rye and you’ve got the ingredients required for the perfect teenage angst novel. Death, Nazis, persecution and injustice – Markus Zusak’s 2005 young adult novel has it all and spends more than 500 pages of dreams and nightmares, self-reflection and self-loathing and of friendship and loving. It’s a brutal, truthful, philosophical and an intensive hormonally charged coming of age read.

The Book Thief follows the protagonist nine year old Liesel’s struggle to survive in wartime Germany beginning with the trauma of her brother’s death, her adoption and her battle to fit in and discover herself. The strong anti-Nazi theme is slightly undermined by an implication that Hitler partly comes to power through the written word rather than the more accepted one of economic depression, unresolved issues of the 14-18 war and the weakness of Germany’s fledgling democracy failing to prevent the Third Reich.

The story is focalised and framed by the character of death whose omniscient sympathetic view of Liesel’s life and times also includes Max, Rudy and Hans amongst others. Death is also changed by the events of the war turning from dark humour to near despair at the savagery. And Himmel Street is another character that is also deeply affected by the war with its gangs of children, bickering residents and Nazi sympathisers. And there’s the Mayor’s wife who is condemned but redeemed by Liesel in her book stealing and anger at the wealth and privilege of the town’s middle classes.

The Holocaust is the dark shadow behind the novel with the characters just one false move away from the Concentration Camps and certain death. Liesel is originally Jewish. Max is a Jew on the run who is hidden by Liesel’s adoptive parents Rosa and Hans Hubermann while Rudy is only a goose step away from liquidation due to his adoration of Jesse Owen.

Complex plotting allows connections to be made from the Great War to the aftermath of the Second World War while at times the fantasies and dreams of the protagonist and her friends diverts the reader away from the core story. At times I felt there was a much tighter and stronger novel within the book. Its strengths lie in the raw agony of injustice to children and of the realism of the settings – especially the scenes at school and when children are left to their own devices.

And amongst the darkness there’s plenty of humour such as when Hans gets drunk at the Nazi Party and knocks on the wrong door on the way home and is confined to the cellar to snore his way to morning.

Death keeps injecting facts at various stages like bullet points in a study guide – just so the reader doesn’t misunderstand anything. As a way of introducing children and young adults to the horrors of the Nazi era through literature The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is a perfect read. It’s a conversational read for much of the time doing at it does teetering on the brink of disaster all the way through until the bombshell ending – which felt like Zusak couldn’t decide how to complete his novel. Overly long perhaps and padded with too many diversions it is nevertheless an insightful and creative look at a recent chapter of German social history.

Harry Mottram

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is available in paperback online for £8.99, or second hand, your local library and all good bookshops.