I may have been late to reading this great book, but I am up there in praise for it. It might just be the most well-written book I’ve read this year, and 2023 isn’t’ even halfway through.
I’ve realised that when a book is labelled a classic, it’s done with good reason. This tendency we have to classify all popular books as “cliched” and not worth our time is truly a disservice to some of the greatest literary works out there.
Let’s dive in.
I won’t spend too much time here. If you haven’t read the book yet, stop whatever you’re doing and pick it up.
The book is set in WW2 Nazi Germany and is narrated by Death.
It is the only constant character in everyone’s story, and he follows the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl who encounters death on many occasions, avoiding getting whisked into his arms.
As per the title, she steals books. They are equal characters in the story; her journey of learning to read gets her through her adolescence in war-torn Germany.
Her step parent’s end up providing asylum to a jew, Max Vandenburg, in their basement. Max and Liesel grow close, with both being there for each other in ways they both knew but couldn’t articulate.
The book follows Liesel’s new life, which gets torn apart when the Allies drop a bomb on her street. She miraculously survives, but her parents, neighbours and friends die in the shock wave. It is a rather traumatic ending, fitting the larger context of the story.
There is something immensely powerful about war fiction. Reading about humanity at its worst is a gruelling reminder of what harm we can do. People caught up in false ideals can inflict great pain upon others. Beliefs have the power to corrode; the world wars are proof of that.
But such stories are also a reminder that the majority of people caught in the vortex of war are innocent people. Whichever side of the aisle you look at, simple people suffer. All the characters in this book, even if they supported the Nazi regime, were normal citizens trying to navigate their way through this world. Their trials and triumphs always stood against a backdrop of war and suffering. Their lives were practically inscribed in the war.
I love the idea of having Death narrate the story. Zusak makes death an actual being, a fitting move for a WW novel. It allows you to zoom out every now and then, giving you a breather as you get through this long book.
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But while the story is heartwarming, it is really the WRITING STYLE that speaks to me. Zusak is one of the best writers I’ve seen who “shows” instead of telling. His careful use of words, metaphors and verbs EVOKE emotions in the reader instead of telling them how to feel. This is the hallmark of any great writer. His descriptions of slate-grey skies, soot-covered faces, rubble birthing pillows of smoke, and red skies paint a picture of a war-torn cityscape. He uses unconventional words to conjure up different sensations. In this book, not only will you “see” war, but you will also hear it, taste it, and even touch it.
Throughout the book, there are the themes of despair, love and raw emotion that sit underneath the words. I cannot point to a specific instance where you see this; you just know it’s there. That is the greatest achievement of this book. Not only does it convey these feelings IMPLICITLY, but it also manages to keep them together without having one triumph over the other.
Good writing can paint a picture in the reader’s mind of things they wouldn’t have imagined otherwise but are nonetheless IMAGINABLE. Let me explain with a simple example.
“Max and Liesel were held together by the quiet gathering of words.”
This is a simple line I pulled out from one of Max and Liesel’s interactions. They are reading together, revelling in the joy of the written word. I love “the quiet gathering of words.” because I don’t quite know what that means. Zusak leaves it to my imagination to decipher what it could mean. There is something so metaphorical about such writing. The use of “quiet” to describe words is fascinating because words are never quiet. They have a sound if you speak them; they ring in your head while you read them. Yet words can evoke quiet emotions and visions in us. And “quiet” itself is a word!
There is also a poetic angle to Zusak’s writing. He is able to evoke emotions without talking about the emotions itself. It is very hard to emulate, and even harder to explain. But it is very real and something to be experienced. So read the following quotes, and you’ll understand:
The sky is speaking to us through its colours.
[Death] handing souls to the conveyor belt of eternity.
Somewhere, far down, there was an itch in his heart, but he made it a point not to scratch it. He was afraid of what might come leaking out. “
A patch of silence stood among them now. The man, the girl, the book. He picked it up and spoke soft as cotton.
Like most misery, it started with apparent happiness.
Zusak also shows how death isn’t as bad and evil as it is painted out to be. For many, it is a salvation. Many soldiers are described to be waiting for death, damaged by what they’ve seen. In narrating through Death, he conjures moving images of people at their last moments. Consider this quote:
[Death is speaking] “Standing above him at all moments of awakeness was the hand of time, and it didn’t hesitate to wring him out. It smiled and squeezed and let him live. What great malice there could be in allowing something to live.”
The story starts off with Death speaking, and while there’s no mention of the word “death” you immediately know its death. Let the following quote speak for itself;
Of course, an introduction. A beginning.
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.
At that moment, you will be lying there (I rarely find people standing up). You will be caked in your own body. There might be a discovery; a scream will dribble down the air. The only sound I’ll hear after that will be my own breathing and the sound of the smell, of my footsteps.
The question is, what colour will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying?
Through Death, Zusak comments on the human condition. He marvels at how we fear death, how we despise it and how sometimes, we long for it. He throws the trope of “death is evil” on its head. Death is evil only because we have made it out to be. For many, it is the ultimate salvation.
is there cowardice in the acknowledgement of fear? Is there cowardice in being glad that you lived?
He turns the torchlight on humanity, talking about how futile we are. He does this implicitly, showing how tired Death got those years. Zusak shows Death “ carefully extricating souls from bodies, cradling them in his arms, feeling their warmth or chill against his hands. There is something so profound in reading about souls and death in such a manner.
[Death speaking] Personally, I can only tell you that no one died from it, or at least, not physically.
One of the central relationships of the story is between Liesel and her stepfather, Hans Hubermann. He is a middle-aged man who survived being drafted in WW1 and plays the accordion. Zusak shows this beautifully by earlier referring to him as Liesel’s stepfather, only to call him father towards the end. He was Liesel’s teacher, showing her how to read. This is arguably the best gift he gave her. Books are what got Liesel through those times.
The book SENSORILY shows the bond growing between them. Liesel grows to love the sounds of the accordion ( especially with the mistakes), the odour of cigarettes, and the “smell” of Hans Hubermann. I love when writing evokes senses other than sound and sight.
Zusak tragically shows Liesel’s love for her father as, towards the end, she begins writing her story, which she hopes to show Hans one day. The tragic reality is that she never will. And so, when Liesel is removed from the rubble after the bombing, the person who throws her into hysteria is not Rudy (she does cry a lot for him), Rosa, or the other Steiners. It is the death of her father that shatters her. The idea of noting having a future with him breaks her and tugs at the reader’s heartstrings.
I will make a special mention to Rosa Hubermann, Hans’ wife, who is initially painted to be a mean, stern woman. Stylistically, she plays the role of some kind of antagonist in the story (only for a short while). But towards the end, Zusak makes us fall in love with her as well. He shows that she is, in fact, a resourceful woman who also has feelings and just expresses them differently. I thought this was very skilful of Zusak; I never thought I’d end up repenting the death of this character.
Zusak also uses her character as mild comic relief. She is the antithesis to Hans’ lofty idealism. She is a pragmatist, scruffy and sour-mouthed.
In the living room, Rosa was snoring with enthusiasm.
Jews and Propaganda
This book also shines a light on the terrible suffering the Jews had undergone. Some of the descriptions were so powerful I had to close the book to compose my emotions. Zusak does this in two ways; Through Death picking up the Jew’s souls from concentration camps and through the toils of Max Vandenburg.
This quote says it all. I won’t say anything. I’ll let Zusak’s brilliant writing conjure up the image for you.
[Death speaking] “When their bodies had finished scouring for gaps in the door, their souls rose up. When their fingernails had scratched at the wood and, in some cases, were nailed into it by the sheer force of desperation, their spirits came toward me, into my arms, and we climbed out of those shower facilities, onto the roof and up, into eternity’s certain breadth. They just kept feeding me.
Minute after minute. Shower after shower.
I would like to tie this into how good writing works. Here, Zusak makes NO mention of concentration camps. He just paints a morbid image of Jews clawing for breath, and we, as the reader, can piece together the missing information. Man, how I wish to write like this one day!
I was just horrified by the incredible hatred people had for the Jews. How corrupt you must be to want to damn an entire people to death. These truly are unspeakable crimes. We are now at an age where the last few people who saw the brutality of the Holocaust are dying out. Soon, the tragedies of the Jews will only live on in memory. We must do everything to ensure the world doesn’t forget the atrocities of that time. Books like this one will keep that sentiment alive. It is only by remembering that horrifying past can we hope to never repeat the same mistakes.
In 1942 and early ’43, in that city, the sky was bleached bedsheet-white each morning. 2. All day long, as I carried the souls across it, that sheet was splashed with blood until it was full and bulging to the earth. 3. In the evening, it would be wrung out and bleached again, ready for the next dawn. 4. And that was when the fighting was only during the day.
Max’s story is one of struggle within the larger context of despair. He fled to the Hubermanns (Liesel’s step-parents) in search of asylum. He stays in their dingy basement in hiding, away from the light, avoiding Nazi detection. Zusak dives into his internal struggle, showing his hallucinations of the Fuhrer.
In the basement of 33 Himmel Street, Max Vandenburg could feel the fists of an entire nation.
Max has to invariably leave Liesel’s house. She reunites with him only years later. I like that Zusak gets caught by the Nazi regime instead of allowing him to escape detection. This shouldn’t be a story of heroism; it is a realistic depiction of that time. Jews almost never escaped Nazi detection then. They just didn’t.
Zusak also shows the incredible power of propaganda. I am going to copy one of the stories Max tells Liesel. It is about how Hitler gained power, and it is worded better than any paraphrasing I can do.
THERE WAS once a strange, small man. He decided three important details about his life:
- He would part his hair from the opposite side to everyone else.
- He would make himself a small, strange mustache.
- He would one day rule the world.
The young man wandered around for quite some time, thinking, planning, and figuring out exactly how to make the world his. Then one day, out of nowhere, it struck him—the perfect plan. He’d seen a mother walking with her child. At one point, she admonished the small boy, until finally, he began to cry. Within a few minutes, she spoke very softly to him, after which he was soothed and even smiled.
The young man rushed to the woman and embraced her. “Words!” He grinned.
But there was no reply. He was already gone.
Yes, the Führer decided that he would rule the world with words. “I will never fire a gun,” he devised. “I will not have to.” Still, he was not rash. Let’s allow him at least that much. He was not a stupid man at all. His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible.
He planted them day and night, and cultivated them.
He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany …. It was a nation of farmed thoughts.
There is a hint of childhood romance between Liesel and Rudy. I haven’t read many books about romance, but it was intriguing to see how Zusak built up the relationship between the two children. They become best friends, united by the same suffering and despair and the love for thievery.
The character of Rudy is very interesting. I think he partly serves the role of comic relief. He is a character that, because of his funny nature, charms readers easily. He tries to be Jesse Owens by covering himself in charcoal dust—an innocent move that instantly tugs at the reader’s hearts.
Zusak subverts normal tropes by telling us early on that Rudy would die. He does this through Death’s narration. At first, I was thrown off by this. Why tell us in the beginning? This just spoils the whole reading experience!
In hindsight, I think Zusak did this to make us fall in love with Rudy. The more we saw his playful nature, the greater our desire for him to live, and thus more the despair when his death finally comes.
As for killing the character specifically, I think it was a smart move. Emotionally, as a reader, I hated to see these deaths, but that is the point, right? Their deaths are supposed to trigger a reaction in the reader. That’s why the author wrote them into the story. It is a tool, and in this case, highlights the ultimate fallacy of war—that there is some reason behind it all. The only thing people get out of war is MISERY.
I’m not saying that I appreciated the move. But I am not saying I hated it either. I am just telling it as it is.
Zusak slowly builds up the romance, showing how Liesel initially despised him, then grew close to him and then ultimately despairing at his demise. He does this against the backdrop of Liesel’s pubescent years (although never diving into deep into this)
Rudy asks Liesel to give him a kiss early on, something she flat-out refuses. He then says that she will kiss him someday, a claim she again refuses. This bounces back and forth throughout the story, with each reference bringing them closer together in the reader’s mind.
Liesel finally ends up kissing his dead body, repenting for not doing it when he was alive. This is a reference for all the things we would like to do with our loved ones but never do. It is only in death that we realise how futile life is. There are some things that will always go unsaid, and that is a terrible weight to bear.
[Death speaking] In many counts, taking a boy like Rudy was robbery—so much life, so much to live for—yet somehow, I’m certain he would have loved to see the frightening rubble and the swelling of the sky on the night he passed away. He’d have cried and turned and smiled if only he could have seen the book thief on her hands and knees, next to his decimated body. He’d have been glad to witness her kissing his dusty, bomb-hit lips. Yes, I know it. In the darkness of my dark-beating heart, I know. He’d have loved it, all right. Do you see? Even death has a heart.
Many people might think that Ilsa Herman, the Mayor’s wife, was an irrelevant side character. But she fulfils an important role in the story.
Ilsa is the Mayor’s wife, from whose library Liesel steals many of her books. She knows the girl is taking books from her; she ENCOURAGES it. She used to read to her son and, to an extent, feels motherly emotions towards Liesel. She used to get her clothes washed by Rosa Hubermann, a deal she hates to cancel due to financial constraints.
Ilsa symbolises those ordinary people who want to help others. She is in a position of power, and she could have destroyed Liesel’s life by reporting her thievery. Instead, she fuels it. She wants her books to be read, and she wants HER to read it. She gets fulfilment in Liesel’s growth. In a war-torn climate, it is profoundly comforting to receive love from a stranger. In my opinion, Liesel doesn’t really thank her for her kindness, but this lack of acknowledgement only adds to the humanity of the story.
Conclusion – The Transformative Power of Words
The story I mentioned above about the Führer is best sums up the incredible power of words. It is through words that ideas spread. Nazism shows us how beliefs can get people to commit the most atrocious of crimes. Words hold incredible power to influence, for good or bad. Borrowing from Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter, words really are our most inexhaustible source of magic and power.
To think on a Meta level, this book is a testament to the POWER of words. You can tell that every sentence has been deliberated over (there are very few places I thought things could have been sped up). Through his lyrical, emotional and metaphorical style, Zusak has constructed a wonderful story and narrated it in a wonderful fashion. This essay falls short of its brilliance.
Now I’ve seen the movie, and I cannot even THINK about comparing it to the book. It’s just the nature of film and text; a movie can never capture the emotional depth that is built page by page. While reading, you grow with the character over the days. That slow momentum builds in the reader’s heart; something lost in a 2-hour film.
Ultimately, these are characters that live only on the page and in my head. Their trials and tribulations have no manifestation in real life. Yet they FEEL real to me. And that’s what makes great fiction. Zusak has conjured up a vivid, moving story in my head and made me fall in love with it. I cannot think of any better testament to the transformative power of writing than this book. Without it, I would have been less of a person.
Please read the book. Please.