I recently finished re-reading The Book Thief and was once again bowled over by the beauty of this novel. There are many reasons that I love this book as an avid reader, as an English Literature student and as an individual. I have tried to put some of them into words here. But first a short summary of the novel
- It is narrated by Death
- Liesel Meminger is the book thief
- She goes to live with her adopted parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann
- They hide a Jew in their basement
- Death visits the book thief three times
Not only is this novel narrated by Death, but the portrayal of death (with and without an upper case ‘d’) is, for me, a new and unique one. So often humans use death as a scapegoat when we are at fault for killing each other, at best through ineptitude, and at worst, through the evil humanity is capable of. In The Book Thief, though, Death merely clears up the mess humanity has made. He is remorseful and caring of the souls he picks up, carrying them like babies and even has to pay close attention to the colours of the sky to distract himself.
‘I am haunted by humans’
Here, we come to the last lines of the novel, where Death admits that he is ‘haunted by humans’. I should point out that I love the last lines of novels. As I approach the end I get really excited wondering what thought or revelation I am going to be left with. On this count, The Book Thief does not disappoint. I just find this simple line so beautiful. For me, it epitomises all of the loneliness and despair of Death. Just consider some of the meanings of ‘haunted’. It can mean tormented, and Death is certainly tormented by humans and humanity. It also, of course, refers to ghosts, which perhaps suggests that even as humans live they are merely ghosts to Death as even our natural life span is hugely finite while Death points out that he is eternal. This idea is accentuated by the fact that Death sometimes tells us chapters in advance about deaths that are going to occur, so that we too have to hear about the experiences of characters and in many cases fall in love with them, all the while knowing in the back of our minds that they are soon going to die. Personally, I find this experience utterly heart-breaking, though it gives only a slight insight into how Death must feel and makes his confession at the end of the novel all the more affecting.
‘I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right’
One of the differences between my first and second readings of the novel was my recognition of the status of words in the novel. Upon first reading I knew that words were important but until rereading, I did not appreciate that words were a major, if not the main character of the novel. Words are constantly personified in the novel and given agency and power; Hitler starts a war using words, Liesel gives Max (the Jew hidden in her basement) the sky using words. Words are everywhere in this novel. Not only are we told of the importance of words, we are shown first hand through the poetic writing of the novel itself. It is a truly beautiful experience.
Using Death as an omniscient narrator, this novel manages to give an insight into the lives of many different characters, making us feel for, and with, all of them. There is of course Liesel, the book thief herself, Hans Huberman with his living accordion, Rosa Hubermann with her “Saumensch”, Max Vandenberg, stealing the sky (I can’t help but feel that Death must feel a certain kinship with Max, as he too could be said to steal the sky as he collects souls) and Rudy, Liesel’s best friend to mention but a few.
The Book Thief
Despite all of the above, perhaps what I love most about the Book Thief is the range of different things different individuals can take away from it. Even on a second reading I have discovered new and exciting elements to the story so who knows what someone else may find?
Ultimately, The Book Thief is a beautiful novel that broke my heart, it made me feel, it made me cry and it made me fall in love with words over and over again.