Death as a Narrator

You are going to die.

   This might be the second paragraph on the opening page of The Book Thief, but it is definitely the first thing that gets your attention. It is the first of many breaks in the narrative that give the reader a direct dialogue with the narrator, Death. In these breaks, Death interacts directly with the reader, sometimes asking them questions, revealing character histories (‘Some Facts About Hans Hubermann’ pg 33), critiquing society’s attitudes towards Jews (‘A Guided Tour of Suffering’ pg 138), giving away painful information as to the fate of certain characters (‘A Small Announcement About Rudy Steiner’ pg 241), as well as a number of other things.

   These interruptions are one of the most talked about writing tactics used within The Book Thief, and (I believe) one of the things that makes it such an engaging novel. Through this technique, Zusak not only allows Death to establish himself as a character, but he gives himself a way to talk directly to the reader. In his narrative, Death doesn’t play any games with the reader; he tells you what you need to know, when you need to know it (and sometimes before you want to know it). The interruptions can be sweet and charming revelations, dark and brutal insights and anything in between.

   Through the character of Death, Zusak is able to deliver a story that looks at humans through the eyes of an outsider. Zusak avoids falling into cliché territory when dealing with the well-known subject of World War II due to Death’s matter-of-fact way of dealing with it. The readers are able to fill in the world on their own, and Zusak manages to convey the broken, horrible world without having to go into too much detail. Zusak’s writing style is clean, managing to be sweet while still keeping with the somewhat detached nature of Death.

   The Book Thief has been called a ‘love letter to books’, and I think that is a 100% accurate statement. It’s a large book but a quick read, and Zusak’s language is accessible and easy to follow; even when he uses the occasional German word, it is quickly translated or explained. Above just being a love letter to books, I believe that The Book Thief is about the importance of stories, words, and language in general. The choice of having Death narrate the story has been praised and criticized, but I believe that Zusak’s Death is the perfect vessel to tell a story about the importance of stories, as Death is a character who sees nothing but the stories of people, for all eternity. As the final line of the book says,

I am haunted by humans.