The Book Thief, Markus Zusak (2006)
Here is a small fact. YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.
1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.
Liesel, a nine year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.
Some important information.
THIS IS A NOVEL NARRATED BY DEATH.
It’s a small story, about:
some fanatical Germans
a Jewish fist fighter
and quite a lot of thievery
Another thing you should know.
DEATH WILL VISIT THE BOOK THIEF THREE TIMES.
I’ve wanted to read this book for so long, and I have no idea why it has taken me as long as it has to do so. The Book Thief was, simply, a magical book. Possibly a weird thing to say about a book that starts off explaining that you are going to die, and is narrated by Death itself, but it is magical nonetheless.
The book begins in 1939 and ends in 1943; set predominantly in the southern German town of Molching. Liesel is arriving at a new home to be fostered by the Hubermanns. She can’t read or write very well, so her foster father, Hans, offers to help teach her. With a book she stole from the snow, The Gravediggers Handbook, and a bucket of paint for practicing on the basement walls, Liesel slowly learns. Over the course of the book, Liesel steals a few more books and continues to practice her reading, right up until the end.
The first thing I loved about this book was the calm and reassuring presence of Death. Right from the beginning you are given the most perfect description of what exactly ‘Death’, the narrator, is. You are soothed, and somehow you know that even though the events of the book won’t lead to a happy ending for everyone, everything will be okay. Death’s explanation of it’s association of souls with colours, and of how it collects souls even when others are crying out to be taken, are some of the most beautiful pieces of writing I think I have ever read.
Of course, I loved the characters. They were all so strong and worthy of the pages they were given. I especially liked Max, and felt for him in his silent suffering, in his guilt at leaving his family and choosing to live, if only for a little longer, but the second thing that really makes this book stand out to me is the portrayal of Germany and ordinary Germans. In many WWII books, the focus is somehow shifted from the Germans and, having lived and studied the Second World War in Germany, this is something that frustrates me. I would have liked to have seen more of a focus on the Hitlerjugend and BDM, but I think the pagentry of the Nazi’s was written to perfection. I enjoyed the snippets of German language that made their way into the book, and the typical German sayings and mannerisms and attitudes. Zusak successfully painted a picture of southern Germany for me, more with the description of people and culture than with places and objects and this is something of which I would like to see more in the books that I read.
The film will be out within the next few months, and if you haven’t yet read The Book Thief, I cannot recommend highly enough that you prioritise it in your TO BE READ pile.