The Book Thief captivates and amazes by looking at the experiences of young orphan, Liesel Meminger, during the tumultuous years of Hitler’s rule in Germany, through the lens of a dark and disturbing omnipresent narrator. Zusak’s development of Liesel’s personality, her choices and the events occurring around her, are fascinating and interesting; yet, his delivery of the story stands out most, making the novel, a remarkable and memorable read. The narrator observes the way books, words and thought influence human behavior and desires for learning and growth regardless of circumstance. During a time when secrets keep people safe, the narrator exposes private thoughts, actions, and moments, which reveal vulnerability and truth Liesel might not provide on her own. The reader is better able to view Liesel, “the book thief’s,” life and fate with deeper insight, meaning, and expectation due to the third person point of view offered by the mystery narrator.
In the first paragraph, as the author establishes anticipation, confusion, and connection with important characters and events, he makes the reader wonder who his all-knowing narrator is and what this means for the rest of the novel. The reader takes in the information from the scene enthralled and uncertain as the narrator starts, “I saw the book thief three times.” (1) The narrator shares this important moment with the reader as though he or she, is there, a witness to the death of Liesel’s brother. Yet, the reader senses this is no typical third person perspective and starts gathering clues about the storyteller for the remainder of the novel. The reader tries to solve the riddle of how the narrator fits into the broader picture. When the narrator introduces Liesel’s first book theft, for example, the reader begins a process of connecting clues related to theme and symbolism, which the narrator leaves throughout the story. The reader is intrigued that each time narrator and protagonist meet she steals books. As the text proceeds, the reader goes on a journey through the memories and experiences of the protagonist, which are paralleled by her acquisition of new books. What is the connection between, story, characters, and narrator?
Times passes as reader waits for narrator to reveal the meaning and purpose each book serves in the story. The reader watches, increasingly attentive and anxious as the words in the books and personal experiences form the world of the book thief, which the narrator controls. The narrator supervises with the reader, giving and taking at will, as Liesel’s life events occur along with her books. Both narrator and reader notice that Liesel’s actions represent a divide between ruin of old ways of life and a fight to keep the past alive. The book burning in her village, for example, represents the loss of freedom and suppression of ideas. But, with the book she pulls from the rubble, she holds on to something that would otherwise be erased. As the war goes on and more people suffer and die, Liesel’s books save small bits of the past, and give comfort and happiness to those who read them. The positive changes start with the book she obtains at her brother’s grave. Her foster father, Hans, uses it to create a bond and to teach her how to read. Similarly, Liesel and Max, a Jewish man hiding in their basement, writes using words and pictures as a coping mechanism, they depict larger issues than their own suffering, and connect to a higher power. The narrator notices the family’s reading and sharing helps them endure, connect, and love, regardless of the pain and suffering occurring around them. The reader is afraid for the characters as the narrator notes their goodness and innocence, and still determines to take things away from them. Both the reader and characters must watch idle, as the narrator decides the future.
There is something rare about an author creating an entity that utterly consumes a story. The reader is interested and almost afraid of what he can or will do without being certain of how or why. When the reader finally does understand, the emotions and ideas elicited by the “voice,” it makes perfect sense. Please don’t be mistaken, the rest of the story is great too: plot, setting, characterization, theme are all excellent additions. Zusak’s novel is a success not just for it’s widely popular narrator, but way the the sum of all its parts fit so neatly together.
Final Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Film: The Book Thief (2013)