Literary Criticism and Significance

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Markus Zusak, an Australian author of German descent, first made a mark on the literary world in 2002 with his award-winning children's book I Am the Messenger. With The Book Thief (2006), his foray into what was marketed as a young adult novel earned him great success in sales (it remained on American best-seller lists for weeks) but mixed reviews from critics. The novel’s dark subject matter and intimidating length (550 pages) ask a lot of young readers, but teenagers and adults alike have read and loved its endearing tale of a young girl trying to survive in a very adult world of war and chaos. Already, book club editions are becoming more popular, and the book’s introduction into the world of education is gaining The Book Thief more exposure and readers: it seems destined to become a widely read and discussed work.

The choppy, often-interrupted narrative is a challenging story line for most readers; reviewers themselves struggled with the novel, calling it “never an easy read, never a glide,” “awkward,” “troublesome,” and “marred by postmodern tricks.” Death, as the narrator, often interrupts the story to insert all-knowing asides, background information, and witty or insightful commentary; the effect is a story that is not cohesive, but rather patchy. The unique style of narration is, however, easy to adjust to and can be forgiven within the framework of a heartrending tale of friendship and suffering. The novel’s strength lies in its endearing characters and the unique bonds that are formed as they all struggle through the difficulties and tragedies of war. Liesel is a character hailed by critics as “gutsy,” “plucky and smart,” “memorably strong,” and “dauntless,” and she is surrounded by equally likable and dynamic characters. The strength of the appealing story carries readers through any hiccups in the format.

Death, as the narrator, carries the very difficult task of relating the story as he goes about the grave work of being the Grim Reaper. Reviewers vary in their opinion of Death’s narration style. Some critics describe it as stark, inconsistent, overly poetic, or too glib to treat the serious nature of war and its atrocities. Others find Death’s narration entertaining, sardonic, sympathetic, and profound.

Most books tackling the subject of World War II are very serious and aimed at adults; this novel, while relating the tragedy and horrors of war, also manages to infuse the undercurrent of misery with moments of joy and happiness. Because of this, youth and adults will appreciate The Book Thief and gain a greater understanding of an important time in history.

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