The story of The Book Thief is a narrative so powerful, it captures the imagination of Death himself, and it is Death who serves as the narrator for this compelling story about Liesel Meminger, an illiterate German orphan growing up in a foster family outside Munich in the shadow of anti-Semitism and World War II. Markus Zusak’s decision to use Death as the narrator of his story is occasionally awkward but, by and large, it is both jarring and compelling. Death’s unique narrative voice is poetic and alien, yet strangely sympathetic and relatable. Death sometimes weaves seamlessly into the narration of the story, but at other times makes jarring, bold announcements and observations which contribute to the poetic quality of Zusak’s prose. Whether subtle or overt, the constant presence of Death creates an appropriate atmosphere for a story about a conflict which claimed more than 60 million lives.
There are many stories about the Holocaust and World War II, but few of them are told from the German perspective. The Jewish struggle holds the centre of the narrative, but instead of taking us inside Auschwitz or Dachau, we are offered a glimpse into the Hitler Youth, the NSDAP, and the everyday lives of Germans during the war. Zusak assumes the reader is knowledgeable about the Holocaust and, instead of focusing on this well-covered area, offers strong narrative insight into the struggles of those Germans who did not sympathize with the Nazi agenda, but could do so little to stop it. Death-the-narrator follows a similar conceit by occasionally jumping forward in time to reveal future facts so that the reader must journey back to them carrying the knowledge of the inevitable result. While frustrating for the reader who dislikes “spoilers,” this technique emphasizes the futility of hope in the face of the known course of history.
Although the Holocaust and the war frame the narrative, equally important is the story of the power of the written word and the act of storytelling. Learning to read changes Liesel’s life for the better, but not as profoundly as learning to share and tell stories with her Papa, her Jewish friend Max, her grouchy neighbour Frau Holtzapfel, and all of the people who huddle in a basement bomb shelter as she reads aloud to them during an air raid. There are many small stories and acts of storytelling woven into the larger narrative, each as compelling as the The Book Thief itself.