Reverse-engineering The Book Thief


Six-weeks ago, I was visiting with friends in Toronto and the topic of young adult novels came up over lunch. My friend Celeste, who is a Grade Seven teacher, and someone whom I would consider an expert on such matters, recommended that I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.  She swore to me “you will LOVE it, and if you don’t it will just be because you don’t have a soul.” Endorsements don’t get much stronger than that. My curiosity was piqued, and within a day of getting home I dropped into a local bookstore and bought it.

book thief

I have been ranting and raving about The Book Thief ever since. I thought that Fugitive Pieces would be the best book of my summer, but The Book Thief affected me even more. I read the last few chapters weeping in the spare room because I got banished from our bed for bad behaviour (refusing to turn the light out at the appointed time, sniveling, gasping, and trying to convince my sleepy husband to let me read passages out loud).  I would have to rate this book in my top five best reads of all time, and I’m sure my friends, students, relatives and strangers I’ve bumped into in public places are all going to wish I would shut up about it.  I can’t believe that I hadn’t come across this novel before now.

I rarely do this, being a bear of little free time, but since finishing The Book Thief in a paroxysm of tears and mucous; I decided to start reading it all over again, only this time, much more slowly and analytically. I’ve been taking it apart, trying to understand how it works. How did Zusak manage to run over my emotions with a tank and leave me wanting more? How did he manage to create fictional characters that I could love so completely? How did he keep me spell bound for more than five-hundred pages?

Although I fully recognize that good writing has an organic flow that is more than the sum of its parts, and that love of a book is a two-way relationship (one set of conditions meeting another in the perfect space and time), I still find it useful to study and contemplate the technical achievements that created the reading experience; to explore the unseen scaffolding that under-pinned the cathedral of words. These accomplishments range from vague and abstract ideas (intentions, themes, and points of view) to very graspable skills like creating visual images, or selecting appropriate metaphors.

I’ve decided that these are the things I found most striking about The Book Thief:


1. Audacity. This is a bold novel, narrated in the first person by death. Yes, death. This should not have worked. The opportunities for a convention like this to fail spectacularly far outweigh the chances of success. It could have ended up sounding trite, sardonic, unintentionally humorous, or melodramatic. Somehow, Zusak made it work. My current theory is that it works because death is complicated, ambivalent, playful, and troubled in a way that a reader can sympathize with. He reads lives the way that we read books. He suffers, and that makes him likable.

2. Frequent unapologetic foreshadowing. This was shocking to me. The narrator tells the reader in advance what is going to happen, almost every step of the way, and yet the tension of not knowing how or why left me on the edge of my proverbial seat. Zusak is a master of dramatic irony, and I often felt I wanted to warn the protagonist about what was coming, and yet I was helpless to do so. This technique is so fascinating when used in such a historical and tragic context, because it reiterates the reader’s position.  This whole novel operates within an atmosphere of hindsight and regret.

2501720296_c64fdff410_m3. Intense and energetic language. Zusak uses a simple vocabulary, and often very short sentences, but the effect is one of grabbing your attention, and it feels kinetic. Here is his description of a mound of books that are about to be burned: “It was prodded and splashed, even spat on. It reminded her of an unpopular child, forlorn and bewildered, powerless to alter its fate. No one liked it. Head down. Hands in pockets. Forever. Amen (102).”


4. Vivid, unexpected and unforgettable images. Zusak is a master at taking emotional states and transmuting them into visual pictures that you can imagine.  For example, “She seemed to collect the words in her hand, pat them together, and hurl them across the table (35).”

5. Complex and fully developed characters who evolve and unveil themselves gradually, and relationships that embody conflict, ambivalence, and deep love.

6. An incredibly mature, honest, insightful, naked view of humanity. Zusak is a young man. I can’t imagine how it is that he came to possess so much instinctive wisdom, never mind the ability to communicate it.

This book is ultimately about the power of words. Words that drove ordinary people to comply in the slaughter of millions (and are still driving wars across the globe), and words that create opportunities for peace and healing. What writer can resist such a book?
It appears, on reflection, that I do have a soul, and it feels a little richer for having encountered The Book Thief. I’m a long way from finished with this book, but I hope others might be inspired to read it. There is much to be learned from it about good writing, and much about living as well.

Until next time,


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We hope you’ll consider joining us for a Day Away to Write on October 6, 2013. The leaves will be just starting to turn – a perfect time for a country drive. We’ve also posted our 2014 retreat dates on our home page.

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4 comments Write a comment

  1. I enjoyed your thoughtful and beautifully written review, Elaine. Your post is also a reminder that reading analytically is one of the best ways to improve our writing (coupled with regular writing practice). I’ll be recommending this novel to my book club. Thank you!

    • Thank you Allyson. I think your book club will love it. Apparently there is a movie coming out in November based on the book. I can’t imagine it living up to the novel, but I think we’ll be hearing a lot more about it in the coming months.

  2. Yes! I think it was classed as YA because the protagonist is a child, but truthfully, it is one of the most adult books I’ve ever read.

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