The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: An unusual book as enjoyable for its faults as its virtues. Adults will enjoy it, as will deep thinking children of about 14 or up. Persevere with the decorative style and reap the rewards.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 592 Date: January 2007
Publisher: Bodley Head Children's Books
ISBN: 978-0370329215

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A Times Educational Supplement Teachers' Top 100 Book

Death narrates The Book Thief, which is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young German girl put up for fostering after her communist father disappears, her young brother dies and her mother is left unable to take care of her daughter. Liesel finds herself fostered with Hans and Rosa Hubermann, kind but rough people. Hitler has come to power and life is not easy, especially for those like Hans Hubermann who have neglected to join the Party. As war closes in and the times become even more difficult, Liesel steals books and learns to read, the Hubermanns hide a Jewish man in their basement and air strikes begin. Through it all, the narrator, Death, continues with his gruesome task of separating souls from bodies.

The Book Thief is a very, very stylised book. Zusak uses the passive voice a lot, unusual in writing for children, and there is also a great deal of fairly complicated imagery, much of it slightly surreal. Death is inclined to flit back and forth in time - wouldn't you, if you were supernatural? - and to describe most things in terms of colours, which is the closest to emotion that he gets. These things make it fairly hard to get into - I was about thirty or forty pages in before I really found myself wanting to read on.

However, it is worth persevering. Once accustomed to the artful style, I found The Book Thief quite enchanting. Life has not been at all kind to Liesel and I suppose you could call her an honourable book thief. She really only steals to find something - words - that should, in any case, be hers by right. The main theme, of course, is that while words can enslave you, they can also set you free, and there are some wonderful metaphors in the book illustrating this. Max, the Jewish refugee hiding in the Hubermann's basement, is saved from the authorities on his journey to reach them by a copy of Mein Kampf, for example. It's also wonderfully humane - reading, you feel as sorry for the rabid Nazi shopkeeper who loses two sons in the war as you do the Jewish prisoners marched through the streets on their way to Dachau.

After the initial struggle to get past the first few pages and into the narrative, I really enjoyed The Book Thief. Its pace and tension accelerates steadily throughout and I read the last third of the book with real anticipatory trepidation. I enjoy wordplay, even if it is overdone and self-conscious, and I can see how the book has found its mark with so many adolescents. Pleasingly, it also speaks of the redeeming power of books and the value of independence of thought and blurs the boundaries between good and evil - an important thing for any adolescent to come to terms with. However, it is stylistically over-egged and this probably refines its appeal to the bookish amongst us. Some - especially reluctant readers - may simply find The Book Thief pretentious. For even the most confident of under elevens, aside from the potentially troublesome subject matter and the swearing and smoking, the style is probably too dense.

This is another book being marketed to both the teen and adult markets. Despite its six hundred pages and surreal imagery, The Book Thief is, in Bookbag's view, very much a book for teenagers, but it has more than enough about it to be worth an afternoon or two of any adult's time.

Thanks to the publisher, Bodley Head, for sending the book.

Another book for older children that confronts prejudice and is full of imagery is The Fire Eaters by David Almond and Sonya Hartnett's The Silver Donkey has an equally unusual take on children and war.

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