On its surface, Markus Zusak's bestselling novel The Book Thief is yet another evocative portrayal of life in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust and World War II. To dismiss it as such, however, would be a crime against literature, or perhaps even language itself. At its heart, the book is about just such an ideal, about the true depths and potential of human nature as expressed by the most concrete evidential proof that being human means something more than a simple variation in genetic code: that is to say, words, whether they be a simple conversation that shares love between two friends or a powerful speech that sows the seeds of hate and fear throughout an entire nation.
The ongoing story concerns a young German girl on the cusp of adolescence throughout the years of Hitler's rise in power and the onset of the Holocaust. This girl, Liesel Meminger, is the titular book thief, whose affinity for words and the power they carry is demonstrated by her efforts to steal as many misused words back as she can: first from the fires of Nazi book burnings, and then later from the home library of the local mayor.
Zusak uses the voice of Death himself as his omniscient narrator, and as an entity unequivocally married to the setting of war, Death's insight in Liesel's struggle provides a profound framework for her story. Death is a curiously poetic creature that seems to seek constantly to understand the creatures that gave him his conscious existence, hence his fascination with Liesel and her life. Zusak uses this to balance the disturbingly objective narration, with Death's blunt and straightforward words refusing to romanticize those things that simply aren't romantic. This is jarring at first, but Death's dispassion enhances the raw emotion present in Liesel's life to the extent that you can truly feel the sensations coming at you off the page. The end of the book is announced from the first page, for example, and yet when the actual event occurs in the narrative, it is still heartbreaking.
This book has deeply affected me, in more ways than I can say. To anyone who loves books and writing and wishes to gain a better understanding of how and why they are related to the tragic mystery that is the human heart, I implore you: Read this book. You won't regret it.