“What good were the words?”: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

With The Book Thief Zusak has achieved a rather charming novel which recounts the bittersweet struggle for humanity in provincial Nazi Germany.


It’s safe to say that Liesel Meminger, the novel’s dainty protagonist, isn’t granted the easiest of lives by its narrator. It’s 1939 and Liesel (LEE-zul) is just nine years old. Yet despite her tender age she has already witnessed the death of her six year old brother, has been torn away from her mother and re-established chez the Hubermann’s on Himmel Street, Molching, a small (fictitious) German town just beyond the outskirts of Munich. All she has to remind her of her previous life is a book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, surreptitiously amassed at her brother’s funeral. Despite her inability to read, this is the object to which she clings for safety and comfort as she settles into life on Himmel Street, and it is this book, the first of the book thief’s booty, which leads her on the path to her new life.


For me, the main strength of this novel is the panoply of characters who make Himmel Street it’s dynamic, intriguing and entertaining self. In the Hubermann household there is Papa, arguably the novel’s hero, an accordion-playing, story-telling, mischievous paternal charmer who teaches young Liesel to read during secretive 3am visits to her bedroom and thus revealing to her the power and beauty of literature and language, all the while bearing the brunt of his wife’s foul mouth. The cantankerous Mrs Hubermann is a woman with a big mouth but a bigger heart and despite the incessant train of Saumensch, Arschloch, and Saukerls which steam 100 miles per hour from her choppers, she never fails in her unwavering support and love for her family (often provided in the form of watery soups). Leisel’s acquires a lemon-haired local friend, Rudy, who adds the zest of youth with his passionate love of life which on many occasions leads to bouts of charming humour (in one such incident, he paints himself in mud and races down the local track in imitation of hero Jesse Owens, a stunt not appreciated by Aryan-idealising Nazi-supporting locals). These characters, plus a host of others including Max Vandenburg, Isla Hermann and Alex Steiner, give the street its great variety. But collectively what ties this eccentric gang together is essentially their innate humanity. Through his microscopic inspection of Molching, Zusak drills home the emotional complexities of human relationships and demonstrates that, despite being fooled by a man with a moustache, these people were human and such people must have existed among the dreadful monster that emerged from Germany between 1939 and 1945.

“Sometimes people are beautiful.
Not in looks.
Not in what they say.
Just in what they are.

Yet this is not the only uniting element. Every character contained in the novel is part of the thread that makes up the rope of the narrative, a narrative spun and dictated by its narrator. It seems fitting, then, that personified Death tells this tale and dictates the movement of the narrative’s rope. Yet Zusak’s personification of Death is by no means a traditional one and is perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel. This is no rapacious, black-hooded reaper trawling around seducing everybody with his scythe, and Death himself mocks this naïve conception of his persona by mankind. As the characters dwindle along their paths towards him, there is almost a melancholy in the tone of Death’s character, a melancholy that he too is forced to accept the inevitability of his own existence. An interesting alternative, which enriches the tragic sadness of the story. Even he is mesmerized by the power of humanity, tenderly collecting the victims of a man-made mess, and is forced to admit by the novel’s end that it is he who is “haunted by humans”.


I only really had two issues with the novel on the whole: the first is the occasional clichés in the language which, despite on the whole being well-written and is strong enough to support what is a winsome story, can fall into patterns of predictability and did not seem to arrest me or shock me at any point. It flowed along quite comfortably, which I suppose is what a novel of this genre should do. The second thing is a confusion in plot; throughout the novel we are pretty certain that it is Death narrating the story, yet towards the end we discover that actually Death picked up Liesel’s book, The Book Thief, which is what we are now reading. So in that case, did Liesel write her own life story from the perspective of a personified Death (quite advanced for a 13 year old…)? I understand why Zusak uses Death to narrate his story, and I can also understand why, for the story to be Liesel’s personal story, she would have had to have narrated it. It seems that the author perhaps couldn’t make his made up and thus this confusion arises. It doesn’t, of course, affect the novel’s poignant message, but I guess this is but a small detail and just me being pernickety! (My apologies…)


What will win over many a bibliophile in this novel, including myself, is the central theme of the power of literature as a source of empowerment during the bleakest moments of life, and indeed the bleakest periods of human history. Today, in a society where 63% of men rarely read, this may seem a tad hackneyed, far-fetched and ideological. Yet literature is the power which wakes our protagonist in the middle of the night, compels her to climb through windows to grab new material, gives her a direction and comfort in her new life, a new life which is eventually saved through writing a book (in more than one way) at the denouement of the book. With a message like that, surely there is only one thing you can do from here?


“Words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make us feel better. What good were the words?”

Thanks for reading, give it a go and let me know what you think below!


Check out The Book Thief here

Check out Markus Zusak on Twitter



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