The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: How to Read Like a Writer
A surprising number of movies are based on books (about 20%), and which books are made into movies can be even more shocking. After winning multiple awards and being translated into over thirty languages, it is no wonder The Book Thief by Markus Zusak was one such book, and like many novels turned films, it paints a fuller picture of the overall story. Zusak’s unique narrator, form, and word choice blend together seamlessly to create a masterpiece.
When it comes to choosing a narrator, Zusak knocked it out of the park. The Book Thief is told form the first person perspective of Death. On the surface, the novel might appear to be omniscient because Death knows what is happening all over the world and reveals the thoughts and feelings of many characters. In this way, Death appears god-like. However, Death does not understand fully humans and is a full character, not just a narrator, as can be seen in:
He’d have been glad to see her kissing his bomb-hit lips. Yes, I know it. In the darkness of my dark-beating heart, I know. He’d have loved it, all right. You see? Even death has a heart (242).
Throughout the novel, Death tries to figure out why people do, live, think, and die the way they do, so he is not actually all-knowing. Plus, his opinions of the characters change over time. This makes Death a first person narrator telling the story of Liesel Meminger.
Death’s non-humanness is one of the reasons The Book Thief is so successful. Zusak manages to dive into the head of an eternal being and show the world through that perspective. Death does not understand humans, but death does know what happens to them when they die, as can been seen in:
Next is a signature black, to show the poles of my versatility, if you like. It was the darkest moment before the dawn. This time, I had come for a man of perhaps twenty-four years of age. It was a beautiful thing in some ways. The plane was still coughing. Smoke leaking from its lungs (9).
When a person passes, Death sees a unique color in the sky, marking the place he must go to gather their soul and carry it to the afterlife. Death does not reveal what happens next, nor does Death hint at whether it is good or bad or the same for everyone. Instead, the immortal being focuses on the human world during World War II and the life of a young girl. If Death were not the narrator, these aspects of the story would be lost along with the idea of a witness to our lives and world.
Form: Death’s Thoughts
One of the key components of Death’s perspective is demonstrated in the organization of the text on the page. Many times within each chapter Death has an aside assessing or commenting on the current events:
* * * A REALIZATION * * *
A statue of the book thief stood in the court yard . . .
It’s very rare, don’t you think, for a statue to appear
before it’s subject has become famous (121).
By bolding and centering text like this, the reader knows which sections are Death’s thoughts and remarks and which are Liesel’s or the other character’s. These moments give the reader a glimpse of what Death thinks about the events Death witnesses and how Death categorizes them. All of the parts and many of the chapters begin with similar formatting:
the shoulder shrug
a girl made of darkness – the joy of cigarettes –
a town walker – some dead letters – hilter’s birthday –
100 percent pure german sweat – the gates of thievery –
and a book of fire
The first two lines of this text also have a different font – similar to old typewriters. Here Death shows how he categorizes and labels things while giving a preview of the events to come. In this part, Zusak both deepens Death’s character and increases the pacing by activating a reader’s need to know what these events are and how they impact the characters. Who is a girl made of darkness? What are the gates of thievery? The bolding, line breaks, changing font sizes, and white space make these sections stand out in the way Death stands out to all mortal beings, emphasizing Death’s perspective and role as story teller.
The Word Choice of Death
Zusak fills The Book Thief with elegant descriptions and the voices of both Death and Liesel. Through word choice and sentence organization, readers can tell which lines are Death’s interpretation and which are thoughts from Liesel Death is reporting. This shorter form of Death’s interjections is reminiscent of poetry. Because there are fewer words, each word is deliberately selected for its imagery, tone, and definition. A book on fire creates a vivid mental picture of the destruction of knowledge and, in the context of Nazi Germany, control over people with censorship and force.
Even though the whole book is told from Death’s point of view, some lines and beliefs are distinctly Liesel, such as:
Whenever she walked to and from school now, Liesel was on the lookout for discarded items that might be of value to a dying man. She wondered at first why it mattered so much. How could something so seemingly insignificant give comfort to someone? A ribbon in the gutter. A pinecone on the street (321).
Death would not give a dying man such things, or anything, for Death is the conveyor of the dead, not a comforter. Liesel is the one distraught by the dying man, praying he will get well. Her thoughts are still clearly being conveyed through Death, though, because Liesel would not think with phrases like “might be of value to.” These are Death’s words for Liesel’s emotions and inner perspective. The only time any of the other characters get to use their own words is through dialogue.
Comments from an Editor
I don’t normally like war stories because I know characters I will come to love are going to die and places and communities will be destroyed, but I loved The Book Thief. The variety of techniques Zusak used to bring Death’s perspective to the reader is inspiring and shows how deeply he thought about the character and story. Through beautiful descriptions, Zusak brought the colors Death sees to life, and with the form of the text on the page, he showed how Death’s thoughts are organized. This level of thought is the major reason the otherness of Death is successful.
When a book appeals to readers who don’t normally like that style or kind of story, the author should be congratulated for their execution and achievement because they have reached a wider audience than many writers working on similar stories. This is something to be celebrated and studied. For me, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak did this by diving into Death’s point of view, using the form of the text to support Death’s perspective, and bringing both Death’s and Liesel’s voices to life through word choice and sentence structure. Committing to a unique perspective like this is something other authors can use to Ignite Their Ink.
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Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.