The Book Thief marks a departure for Markus Zusak. It is his first novel for adults, has broader concerns than his earlier work, and makes clearer his ambitions to be considered a serious writer. His first three novels, for young adults, were primarily focused on the masculinity of the boys in a working-class Sydney family. His next book, The Messenger (2002), foreshadowed the development we see in The Book Thief. Presented for young adults, The Messenger could easily have been marketed as a ‘crossover’ novel. It took Zusak into new and strange territory with a story about a young man mysteriously chosen and directed to intervene in other people’s lives.
In The Book Thief, Zusak abandons contemporary Australia for World War II Germany. In doing so, he inevitably signals his intention to raise those intractable existential questions that go along with writing fiction about Nazi Germany, its treatment of Jews, and its bombing by the Allies. He signals his intention even more obviously by using an anthropomorphised and almost passive Death as a narrator, and having Death address the reader to tell us that this story is one of a ‘small legion’ he carries, ‘each one an attempt – an immense leap of an attempt – to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it’. You can’t get much more thematically ambitious than this, although perhaps we shouldn’t take Death’s ambition as equivalent to Zusak’s. According to the tenets of postmodern fiction we are alerted to the constructed nature of narrative, and here is the other theme of the book, the nature and importance of books, words, reading and writing.