Sometimes I wonder about the hyperbolic quotes on book covers. On one hand, seeing in all caps that The Book Thief is “BRILLIANT” and “LIFE-CHANGING” are part of what convinced me to keep reading when I had gone well over 50 pages and failed to really be grabbed by the story or characters. However, at the end of the book, when I was left thinking “OK, that was a decent story with an interesting theme” I felt like the book had been a bit oversold.
First, the good parts.
The Book Thief follows a young girl, Liesl, who is sort of out of place in Nazi Germany for a variety of reasons. As she learns to love her foster family and get along in a poor area outside of Munich, she starts stealing books here and there, and forms a complex relationship with reading, writing, and the role of words in her time and place.
The Book Thief’s theme of the importance of words in Nazi Germany, both for good and for ill, was an unusual one, and a strong idea.
I also think the main idea, that there were good people in Germany during that dark time, people who helped the Jews and rebelled in the little ways they were able, is important, especially as it seems that this book is being used in middle schools and younger readers may not be as acquainted with the nuances of what was going on in that society.
Unfortunately, I felt that the great theme and solid main idea lacked some of the punch they might otherwise have had due to the fact that the author chose to keep the reader several degrees removed from the characters by using Death as a narrator. Yes, Death. It was annoying, and seemed really gimmicky to me. Apart from the annoyance, my main problem with using the Death-as-narrator frame is that it kept me from really getting close to the characters, to the point where I nearly came to the end of the book before I cared much about any of them, and even when Death got them in the end I wasn’t terribly sad. What was sad was that I didn’t really get into them, because the characters were good ideas. I just find that when a reader is kept at arms length from characters with a detached point of view, it’s difficult to get immersed in who they are and how they think. Again, I think this is so unfortunate because on the merits of the story the book could have been much, much stronger.
I think using Death as a narrator, as well as some unusual story within a story setups, is why The Book Thief garnered acclaim, but from a strictly story-telling perspective I thought it fell short.
I realize that lots of readers absolutely loved this book, so if you are one of those, I hope my review hasn’t offended you! If you really liked The Book Thief I’d be interested to hear your perspective!
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