In his book, The Book Thief, author Markus Zusak does what many writers can be hesitant to do: tell their story through an omniscient narrator. Luckily for readers, Zusak’s choice of narrator pays off. The Book Thief begins in 1939, and follows the life of young Liesel Meminger, a German foster child living under Hitler’s reign, whose desire for knowledge leads her to steal books any chance she gets.
The omniscience of the narrator gives an original perspective on the events that unfold in Nazi Germany. Rather than tell the story through Liesel’s eyes and risk creating a biased or narrow point of view, Zusak is able to use the more unbiased omniscient narration to simply lay out the “facts.” Zusak uses the narrator to invite the readers: “If you feel like it, come with me. I will tell you a story. I’ll show you something.” And that’s exactly what happens. The reader is shown Liesel’s story, the story of one small girl, living her life amidst the greater context of the evil happening around her.
As the book begins, Liesel is just ten years old. The reader is introduced not only to Liesel, but to all the people that live with her on Himmel Street. Because the narrator is omnipresent, Zusak is able to give a more in-depth look into the individual lives of the people around Liesel. Rather than coming off as flat or one dimensional, the characters are well-rounded and complex.
When writing about a subject like Nazi Germany, it can be easy to fall into the trap of labeling every person as good or evil, pro-Nazi or anti-Nazi. One of the great successes of The Book Thief is that Zusak manages to, for the most part, avoidforcing his characters into all-good or all-evil boxes. Rather, like in real life, the characters exist in shades of gray. We meet many different kinds of people, from kindly Hans Huberman, who hides a Jewish man in his basement, to Frau Diller, whose very breath “[smells] like ‘heil Hitler.'” Then there are those like Alex Steiner, whose “contradictory politics” make it hard to place him on the spectrum of good and evil. By creating such intricate characters, Zusak keeps the reader focused and engaged throughout the entire book.
The reader is frequently reminded of the greater historical conflict, but Zusak still manages to write a compelling story that focuses on the trials and triumphs of the members of Himmel Street. While it would be easy to write the book as overly sympathetic or overly critical of the German people, Zusak takes neither of these paths. Instead, he allows their actions and choices to be presented to the reader for judgment. During one scene as the citizens of Himmel Street huddle together in a basement, waiting to see if bombs will drop on their town, the narrator muses,
“Did they deserve any better, these people? How many had actively persecuted others, high on the scent of Hitler’s gaze, repeating his sentences, his paragraphs, his opus? Was Rosa Hubermann responsible? The hider of the Jew? Or Hans? … The answer to these questions interests me very much, though I cannot allow them to seduce me.”
Zusak’s writing prompts the reader to think and raises questions that will be considered long after the book is closed.
While the narration is engaging and offers a lot to the reader in terms of a widened perspective, there are aspects that could make the writing off-putting for some. The narration is interspersed with definitions, lists, and little asides. “A definition not found in the dictionary,” written with bold type in all capitols sits in the middle of one page, above the sentence: “Not leaving: an act of trust and love, often deciphered by children.” These notes are placed in strategic places, as a way to highlight or draw extra attention to certain aspects of the story. However, the added notes may be distracting for some readers, as they can have the effect of pulling you out of the flow of the story.
The Book Thief was originally marketed as an adult book in both the UK and Australia, while in the US it has been released as a Young Adult book. As it was originally intended for older audiences, the writing is more mature and the novel is longer than your average American YA novel. It is possible that US readers may find that the tone of the book does not quite match up with what they have come to expect from YA fiction. While some younger readers may find the this novel a bit dense or hard to get into, for the most part The Book Thief will provide a satisfying read for people young and old.