That said, this was a wonderful book. It’s very different from most of the YA fiction out there. The writing style almost made me feel like I was floating above the story, or dreaming it. Death views everything happening in Liesel’s life calmly. Death doesn’t make many judgments about what he is witnessing. He is intrigued, and sometimes feels sorry for the people he is observing, but he is mostly detached from the events. It almost gave the book a hazy feel, if that makes any sense.
Also, since Death exists outside of our perceptions of time and space (and since he is Death), he sometimes jumps around in the narrative. A character will have something happen to him, and suddenly Death will interject his own thoughts about that character’s death, sometime later. And then we’ll be back in the present again. Sometimes a death is mentioned briefly early in the book, then explained fully later. Other times, Death merely alludes to the character’s later death, and that’s the last we ever hear of it.
Some people find this off-putting or spoiler-ish. But seriously, everyone dies, someday. And I imagine if I was Death, I’d view people’s actions through the lens of their eventual and inevitable deaths too.
As for the human characters, I never felt like I truly knew or completely understood them, because Death doesn’t fully know or understand them either. But I was able to feel them and sympathize with them. I could see many nuances and facets to each of them, but always with a slight sense of detachment. It’s a hard feeling to put into words. Normally, if I don’t feel fully connected with the characters, I can’t enjoy a book. But the detachment in this book seemed very deliberate, instead of the author just not knowing how to make me feel connected.
As for the plot itself, this isn’t a typical Holocaust book, in that we don’t ever venture into the concentration camps (with the exception of Death’s haunting recollection of carrying souls away from the gas chambers) and the main character is too young to fully understand what is going on around her. Liesel’s main concerns are obtaining food, reading her books, and spending time with her friends and foster parents. The main exception to this is the time spent hiding Max in the basement. But even then, Liesel is more concerned with the stories he tells and the friendship they form. She doesn’t care that he is a Jew, and doesn’t spend much time pondering his fate if he is ever found out.
There’s a bittersweet innocence to her story. She can go to Hitler Youth meetings, attend book burnings, and hide a Jew in her basement, but she is still largely ignorant to the horrors of the world around her. Of course, even a child can’t be oblivious forever, and once the war finally comes directly to Liesel, it is hear- wrenching.
I cried towards the end of this book. I pretty much never cry during books (I think the last time I cried was when I read The Chamber by John Grisham in 1998, and I still can’t really explain that one), but I cried while reading this one. The only thing stopping me from a full-on gulping and hiccuping ugly-cry was the fact that my husband was sleeping in the bed next to me, and I didn’t want to wake him up (plus, I kind of thought that if I did wake him up, he may make fun of me for crying so hard at a book. And I didn’t feel like explaining why it was totally justified).
I wasn’t prepared for how hard it was going to hit me. As I mentioned before, I felt like I had gone through the bulk of the book as a detached observer. I didn’t feel completely connected to the characters, although I didn’t mind. And yet at the end, I could barely even breathe through the tears.
The Book Thief is a story of regular people doing the best they can during a period of unspeakable evil. It’s a story of Death being fascinated by life. And a story of a child being a child, in a world where innocence is a luxury few can afford.
I thought it was beautiful.