This absolutely unique piece of historical fiction moved me more than any book has done for a very long time, perhaps even since I read The Time Travellers Wife. This is a book for book lovers. The Book Thief is written by an Australian author, and it is is debut adult novel, after a career of writing children's fiction.
The protagonist of the novel is Liesel Meminger, a young girl growing up in Nazi Germany. It begins with the death of her brother, and her mother then leaving her in the care of the Huberman's, who become her new family. There is Mama, a fierce disciplinarian, and Papa a caring and warm man who dedicates hours to teaching Liesel to read. With the help of her Papa, she begins to read The Gravediggers Handbook, a book she finds following the burial of her brother.
What is particularly unique about this story of Nazi Germany, is that it is narrated by Death. Death doesn't introduce himself in those terms, but it becomes clear who is telling us the story of The Book Thief.
The style is expressive in a lyrical way, and is still very modern. Not only do we see the story unfold from Liesel's perspective, but we also have asides from Death, sometimes written as if they were on a gravestone. In effect, it is Death re-telling the story of Liesel, The Book Thief, and so we are provided many glimpses of the future of the story. This in no way deters the reader from reading on, it is one of those books where it is the journey to the conclusion that is the real joy of the book. Death himself acknowledges:
"Of course, I'm being rude. I'm spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it. I have given you two events in advance, because I don't have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It's the machination that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest and astound me".Zusak skilfully creates Liesel's experience through Death's storytelling with the use of imagery. This is because Death gives a very sensory account of the world, describing events, places and people with phrases such as"the smell of friendship", "scent of Hitler's gaze" and "For me, the sky was the colour of Jews". We are left with strong and clear images burned into our minds as we watch Liesel's story unfold.
As we give in to the sensory reality of Death's narrative, we see Liesel experience the normal angst of childhood; struggling through school, going on adventures with her best friend Rudy Steiner and helping her Mama raise funds by collecting laundry from neighbours. It is in this last role that she is truly able to give in to her love of books, and she eventually begins stealing them from the mayors house, after she makes friends with the mayor's wife. It is this act, and the further acts of book thievery that lead Death to give her the name of 'The Book Thief''.
There is a darker side to her life though. She lives in a town a short distance from Dachau, and witnesses Jews being marched through her city. We witness her and Rudy's involvement in the Hitler Youth Movement, and cringe at the insidious way in which Nazism infects their daily lives. Nazism has a more significant impact upon her life when her family begins to shelter a Jew, Max Vandenberg.
This book is undoubtedly about the experience of human misery in WWII, and Zusak does a brilliant job of describing the realities and intricacies of the lives of German people during Hitler's reign. We see acts of cruelty and acts of kindness and love.
And yet, The Book Thief is also about the power of language. It is books that allow Liesel to recover after her brothers death and her mothers abandonment. Books and language bring her closer to her Papa and become integral to her relationship with Max Vandenberg and to a lesser degree the Mayor's wife. It is though books and storytelling that she brings comfort to those that she shares the bomb shelters with, and it is books that play an important role in those transgressions against the Nazi state that she and others are willing to commit. Significantly, it is because of books that Death is able to tell us Liesel's story at all.
This is a book that had tears rolling down my face on three different occasions. It is a powerful but sad story about human suffering and the importance of language in the modern world. If you are a book lover, and a lover of language, then I not only recommend this book to you, I ask you to read it.
What kind of read is this?
It is an easy read, but it is emotionally challenging. It is very different to anything I have read before, largely in terms of the style in which it is written.
Do I recommend this book?
Yes, I couldn't recommend another book more strongly. You absolutely must read this.
Do I recommend that you buy this book?
Again, yes, absolutely, without hesitation. My book collection is all the more stronger for having this book.