This book has been recommended to me many times over the years, but it was the movie release which finally spurred me into action.
The Book Thief truly is a bold, original novel. Whilst it covers a common subject, the Holocaust, Markus Zusak finds an innovative and unique way to narrate his tale. Through the eyes of Death. But this isn’t a dark, menacing character. This Death describes himself as ‘affable’ and ‘amiable’. He struggles to understand the complexities of the human race, and often feel sorrow for those souls he has to take away.
The narration is made more unusual by the fact that Death speaks directly to the reader. In the prologue, he invites us into the tale, saying: “If you feel like it, come with me. I will tell you a story. I’ll show you something.”
Death tells “one of a handful” of the stories he has about humans. This particular one happens to be about a young girl called Leisel Meminger, who is sent to live with foster parents in a poor part of the fictional town Molching in Germany during World War 2.
We join Leisel when she is nine years old, on the train to her new foster parents, accompanied by her mother and younger brother. Her brother dies on the trip, the first of many tragedies in her life, and the first time Death finds himself in her proximity. On the day of her brother’s funeral she steals for the first time; a book, The Grave Digger’s Handbook, from one of the funeral staff. Whilst she can’t read at this point, the book means a lot to her as it represents the last day she saw her mother, and the day she buried her brother.
Leisel goes to live with Hans and Rosa Hubermann, two well-meaning foster parents living in a poor area of Germany. The two foster parents are well written and life-like – they counterbalance each other perfectly; Hans is calm and kind where Rosa is feisty and indignant, but they both truly care for their new foster daughter, and as time goes on she slowly settles into her new life on Himmel Street.
As Leisel grows older she gradually learns to read with the help of her patient foster father, Hans. Her career as a book thief continues, as she builds her collection of stolen books, each of which relate to a milestone in her own young life. But whilst she and her family are living their humble lives, the war rages on around them and there comes a point when it simply can’t be ignored any longer, and the story of Leisel’s own life collides with the all-encompassing World War 2.
Zusak creates an entire community of eclectic characters living in and around Himmel Street, including the Mayor and his vacant wife, the forcefully patriotic Frau Diller and Leisel’s best friend, Rudy Steiner. Whilst the story follows Leisel’s life, it is about so much more than that. It is a story about people; the human race and a country which is slowly transformed. It’s a story about hope. Death, as the narrator, often interjects with his own reflections on the events, using small, embellished headlines and pictures to provide us with extra insights, facts, definitions and suggestions. I understand that some people may find this annoying, interrupting the flow of the story, but I only found that it added to the overall picture.
In The Book Thief, Zusak paints a vivid picture of life in Nazi Germany, spanning subjects such as the Hitler Youth, bombs scares and Jews hidden in basements. But whilst this novel covers such vast topics, it does so in a simple and humble manner. It doesn’t pretend to be anything grand; this is a novel which focuses on the little things in life – things like a new book, a game of football on the street and a snowman in the basement. Because of this the story could be considered slow-moving at times but The Book Thief is firstly a story about people, the beauty of their friendships and the power that words can have over those people. It’s unique writing style may seem gimmicky to some, but for me it just makes it a little bit more special. The heartwarming story of Leisel, her books and her family is one which will stay with me for a long time. I loved it.