Book review – ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak

AND THE WAY I LOOKED AT THE SKY FOREVER CHANGED..

Set in 1939- 1943 Nazi Germany, this book is narrated by ‘Death’, it’s the story of Liesel as she discovers her love for books during tumultuous times when book burnings were a common occurrence.

Liesel stays with her foster parents, Hans, a tall, gentle man with calm eyes and a fondness for playing the accordion and Rosa, a strong, brusque woman who may swear a lot but hides a kind and loving heart underneath all that bluster. Liesel settles in with Hans and Rosa learning to read and write with Hans and helping Rosa out with her laundry business.

Liesel’s life is irrevocably changed when she picks up a discarded book by her brother’s graveside. (This is also when Death and Liesel first cross paths) Soon she slowly begins to steal books from wherever she can and learns to read them. Her world gets more complicated when her foster family decides to shelter a Jew, Max in their basement risking all their lives.  Max and Liesel soon become close and he writes the most breathtaking and heart-wrenching story for her to read called ‘The Standover Man’ – It’s the story of Max, growing up and coming to Liesel’s home, and it’s painted over white-painted pages of Mein Kampf, which you can see through the paint. This story is so beautifully illustrated in the book and it nearly broke my heart to read it. 

The Book Thief is one of those books meant to be savoured slowly, it’s poignant but not depressing despite the subject matter. In fact, there is a lot of humour and heart weaved within the story. The writing itself is beautiful and the narration from Death is so unique. You would expect it to be dark with a note of finality but instead, end up with such incredibly insightful observations with a sprinkling of dry humour. Death’s fascination with humanity comes through in every observation he makes. His inability to reconcile the remarkable cruelty and the immense compassion of which human beings are simultaneously capable of is perfectly summed in the last line

“I am haunted by humans.”

Death’s observations are a surreal mix of colours and metaphors. He says he always tries to see the colours first, then the humans. He says

“..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”

“.. the question is, what colour will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying?”

Throughout the book Death always begins by describing the colours of the sky.

“People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and ends, but to me it’s quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spot blues. Murky darkness. In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them.”

It’s a distraction for him, and in his line of work, distraction is a must. Every time Death picks up a soul, he notices the colour of the sky and in describing it he shares his perspective with the reader. For example, Death’s description of the sky at a scene of a bombing is as follows:

“The last time I saw her was red. The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper streaked across the redness”

Some times he describes the sky in exact colours like yellow, silver or deep chocolate but always with imagery. For example

“Oh, yes, I definitely remember him. The sky was murky and deep like quicksand. There was a young man parceled up on barbed wire, like a giant crown of thorns. I untangled him and carried him out” 

Later Liesel mirrors this in describing the sky to Max when he is trapped in the basement. While I was reading the book, I realised that the way I look at the sky will never be the same. It will never be just a colour but will have multitudes of hues and imagery interlaced into it.

I remember finishing the book and just sitting there, shattered yet hopeful. I have not discussed a lot of characters that are in the book like Rudy or the Mayor’s wife because I would love for you to discover them yourself.  It’s a must-read recommendation from me, this book will educate and inspire you in a  way that leaves you emotionally raw.

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