Imagine reading a prolonged novel about, say, a prince saving a princess; now think about how much more challenging it would be reading an intensely gloomy novel subjected to the horrors of WWII Germany and narrated by Death himself. I understand all too well that some books really aren’t easy to read. When you are challenged by a novel and start to lose interest, the pages don’t seem to turn as quickly anymore. In The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, I was challenged a lot. This included: the dark period of the Holocaust as a setting, sadistic narrator, and the not so happy ending. I later realised that these thought-provoking aspects are actually hidden gems and are what made the novel so notable and worthy to read.
The fictional historical story is from the perspective of an atypical narrator, compassionate Death. He points us to a young, lonely orphaned girl called Liesel, who steals books, learns to read, and finds comfort in words during World War II. The story follows Liesel, her foster family and friend Rudy when everyone is struggling to survive the glare of German Nazis.
One reason that The Book Thief was challenging was because the book is set in a dark period. It focuses on the holocaust. It portrays many details about the life of Nazis and the life of the German people. The book was challenging because it contained scenes of cruel fate, sacrifice, and heroism of the characters. As it was based on historical facts, it is easy to feel there could have been similar situations and struggles for German people. Some situations in the novel were extreme, but considering the difficult time period, these situations could have happened. This life situation which could be real makes readers feel more sympathetic towards the characters.
Death is the narrator. This point of view is challenging for anyone reading it death usually isn’t thought of as a person. Zusak used personification of death to offer a unique, omniscient perspective on all the death and dying occurring during this historical period at a more personal level. Death begins the chapter asserting ‘one small fact – you are going to die.’ Parataxis is used to demonstrate both arrogance and light heartedness in this assertion. Zusak portrays Death as an omniscient narrator. This is frightening because it means he knows the thoughts and feelings of the characters. This allows readers to be able to perceive the hard life in Germany at the time better because of death’s pessimistic and honest tone. It benefits the reader by allowing them to interpret the characters’ emotions.
Death as the narrator offers amusing, didactic, or gloomy remarks. Zusak could have used a third-person narrator, but by using Death the author is able to take a sceptical view of the war and mortality itself. After Rudy, one of Liesel’s only friends, dies, it is described as Death ‘taking’ him. But Death expresses sadness that Rudy died so young. Zusak communicates Death’s feelings when the narrator says, ‘Even Death has a heart’. This challenged my previous thoughts because I had never considered death having a heart, along with many other readers, but as personified in The Book Thief, Death does care about humanity.
What is different about this novel is the way it creates a series of emotions for the reader. This is mainly because it isn’t an average, typical novel with an issue and moment of clarity. In most other novels, you feel contempt when you have finished reading. It has nearly killed you, but you did it. It feels good, and the story sweet. Whereas, in this story there is a lingering sense of anti-climax. So, something I found challenging was all of the stages and that there was never a complete resolution or happy ending.
In The Book Thief, I expected a happy ending. This is certainly not how The Book Thief ends. This reminded me of the novel Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, in which the happy ending I presumed between the two main characters never came to fruition. Similarly, to Dickens, Zusak plays with our emotional attachments to the characters by breaking the mould of typical novel expectations. The truth these authors communicate is that in real life not everyone has a happy ending. Even though I expected all the characters to live happily in the end, I enjoyed the fact that the book did not end that way. It made it seem real. I liked the idea that the story of Liesel seemed like something that could have really happened.
To conclude, I’m sure The Book Thief has challenged every reader in different ways. It depends on the understanding of reading and opinions are formed based on the way the reader perceives the story. However, the challenges I faced as a reader would be similar to those of other readers. The distinctive narrator and the disheartened aura imbedded into the story made me rethink the essence of writing. The unexpected conclusion of the novel questioned my initial beliefs of a storyline but gave me a changed perspective on the set time period.