Our review of this modern classic, and then our thoughts on the movie adaptation…
The Book Thief Synopsis
It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.
Liesel Meminger and her younger brother are being taken by their mother to live with a foster family outside Munich. Liesel’s father was taken away on the breath of a single, unfamiliar word – Kommunist – and Liesel sees the fear of a similar fate in her mother’s eyes. On the journey, Death visits the young boy, and notices Liesel. It will be the first of many near encounters. By her brother’s graveside, Liesel’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Gravedigger’s Handbook, left there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery.
So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordion-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever there are books to be found.
But these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jewish fist-fighter in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened up, and closed down.
I had this widely acclaimed novel The Book Thief by Australian author Markus Zusak on my to-be-read list on my Kindle for an embarrassingly long time. Why? Probably because it’s almost 600 pages long and classified as ‘young adult’ fiction, a genre I am not normally drawn to. I had also read so many rave reviews that I must admit I was a little sceptical – could a book about The War really be that original?
The answer is – it certainly can.
Markus Zusak’s decision to cast Death as the narrator was an absolute master-stroke. Zusak’s Death is not the one-dimensional character we are used to either. This Death has a heart and an ironic sense of humour. In my humble opinion, an author that can make his audience feel empathy for Death has a special talent.
‘Where are my manners? I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A colour will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.’
Zusak discusses this key decision and more in this video interview:
In The Book Thief Markus Zusak presents the very human side of war, the strength of individuals and the many complex reasons for their actions.
‘I guess humans like to watch a little destruction. Sandcastles, houses of cards, that’s where they begin. Their great skill is their capacity to escalate.’
This important message is conveyed in a format, that anyone, the young or the old of any culture cannot help but identify with and feel empathy for – the plight of a child.
That child is Leisel Meminger – a damaged but strong-willed and immensely likeable young girl that displays wisdom beyond her years. She does not judge a book, nor people, by their covers.
The true gifts in this novel that make it so difficult to put down are the special relationships Leisel develops with the wonderful ensemble cast of characters from all walks of life. Particularly charming and compelling is her close friendship with neighbour Rudy Steiner and the various acts of mischief they get up to while the threat of war and societal discord builds around them.
With this tale Markus Zusak reminds us of the extraordinary power of the written word – that books of themselves are so much more than paper and glue.
The Book Thief should be required reading in schools.
I certainly wish I had read it sooner. It will become, if it is not already, a modern day classic.
BOOK RATING: The Story 5 / 5 ; The Writing 5 / 5
Genre: Literature, Historical, Drama, Action-Adventure, Humour
* Although I read this novel on Kindle, I recommend reading it in hard copy. Key elements of the story are presented in pictures which would be easier to read in that format.
About the Author, Markus Zusak
Markus Zusak (born 23 June 1975) is an Australian author specialising in the young adult genre. This, his number one international best selling novel, has been translated into more than 30 languages.
- Read The Guardian’s interview with Markus Zusak discussing why he writes
- Check out Markus Zusak’s author page at Random House
- Checkout out my comparison of the many different covers this novel has been published with
The Book Thief MOVIE REVIEW
Bravo to the creators and cast of The Book Thief movie! They have proven to me that it is possible to do a book justice in film.
Yes, the cast were generally much better looking than those I’d conjured up in my mind while reading, but that didn’t hurt 😉
Yes, since I knew when the sad parts were coming I was a blubbering mess.
And yes, for the same reasons, I could not stop myself from cataloging what was interpreted slightly differently and what small pieces of the novel were omitted from the screenplay.
But the key thing is, whenever the movie adaption deviated slightly from the novel, I understood and appreciated why. It conveys the key themes powerfully while maintaining much of Zusak’s original artistry. If I could have tweaked one thing, I would have utilised even more of the original narrative musings from Death (some of my favourite passages in the novel).
Wonderful performances by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, and you couldn’t get much sweeter (and very talented) portrayals of the characters ‘Leisel’ and ‘Rudy’ by Sophie Nélisse and Nico Liersch.
The mirroring of humanity within The Book Thief is so important (the reason I believe the novel should be required reading in schools) and so I am heartened that this movie adaptation will bring that message to an even wider audience.
Other reviews of the novel