The thing about The Book Thief — and no doubt a reason for its phenomenal sales success — is that it reminds you of how satisfying plain old good story-telling is. Narrated by Death, it is the tale of little Liesel Meminger who finds herself given to foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann. On her way to this new home the brother who was supposed to arrive with her dies on a train. It seems poor Liesel is surrounded by the death and disappearance of those closest to her.
At first, Liesel struggles to settle into this new home, but soon her new Papa, Hans, wins her over. He is a wonderful character, kind and generous. He survived WWI and now seeks to help repay a debt of gratitude by hiding a Jew, Max, in their basement. A wonderful friendship grows between Max and Liesel. A slow learner, Liesel gradually learns to read with the help of Papa and the encouragement of Max. In turn, Max paints over his copy of Mein Kampf and creates his own stories for Liesel who has developed quite a penchant for stealing books.
Death is a great choice for a narrator. It opens up some pretty interesting areas that one could explore. Zusak allows him some personality without letting it get in the way. We learn in the opening pages that Death always notes the colour surrounding the souls of the dearly departed. This gives us some quite poetic descriptions of the skies in the moments he does his work. Elsewhere, however, including the Prologue, I found the language a little stilted, as if Zusak was struggling to get into the unique voice of his narrator. But who knows, perhaps this was done on purpose – perhaps Death’s voice is supposed to be stilted. For example:
(p37): “He came in every night and sat with her. The first couple of times he simply stayed – a stranger to kill the aloneness.” [emphasis added].
Or this: (p59):
“… he paced around, gathering concentration under the darkness sky, with the moon and the clouds watching, tightly.” [emphasis added].
(Death also has quite a devotion for starting new paragraphs!)
Quibbles aside, there are some wonderful scenes. We have Liesel’s description of Hans playing the accordion. Max’s nightly dreams of his boxing bouts with Hitler are very humorous and quite poignant – when he finally lands a punch on the Fuhrer he aims for only one thing: the moustache! We also see Liesel retrieving a book from the book bonfire celebrating Hitler’s birthday – a very touching moment; (having seen the wonderful memorial in Berlin in which a vault of empty book shelves disappears down into the pavement to mark all the lost books, this is quite a scene). Later, Liesel reads to all her neighbours when they huddle together in a basement during air raids. Her neighbour, and best friend, Rudy, aids and abets her thievery. He was captivated by Jesse Owens’ success at the Berlin Olympic Games and uses some charcoal to black himself up and run a race in homage to his hero. Later in the book, the two of them go off to steal some fruit from nearby farmers – the first year, at the start of the war, there’s loads of apples to take, but the next year, the trees are like skeletons and the take is hardly worth it. We also have Max declare to Liesel that Mein Kampf is “the best book ever” — not because it is a good read, but because it saved his life. Liesel gives Max daily weather reports – for it is months since he has seen the sky; he revels in her descriptions, such as the ‘rope of cloud’.
The power of the story lies in the ability for us to see the grave injustices of the Nazis through the eyes of Liesel and the people she loves – Papa, Mama, Max, Rudy. Along the way, one of the central ideas of the book is espoused: the power of words. Max’s ‘The Word Shaker’ story, given to Liesel, is especially powerful. So too is the madness of war, the horror of what people are capable of. These cartoons and other stories within the story are quite post-modern. I can see in future e-book editions, the trees which grow Hitler’s words fluttering on the (electronic) page.
I mentioned some of the more frustrating language above, but there are, of course, far more examples of wonderful writing and very lyrical images. We have “metallic eyes [clashing] like tin cans in the kitchen” (p113); a description of the Great War as “a conversation of bullets” (p189). There is also nice humour throughout, some of it quite black, such as the Jews being marched to “Dachau, to concentrate” (p415); and one of Hans’s LSE associates who complains, “Just once I want to be there when they [bomb] a pub, for Christ’s sake. I’m dying for a beer.” (p462). Furthermore, Zusak’s use of German, and his translation into English, is pitch-perfect.
The Book Thief deserves its commercial success. Its language is simple. It’s such an engaging story that the small motes of strangeness in the narrative and editing are quickly forgotten. What we are left with is a great read, with great story-telling at its heart. And great story will win out every time.
Sue at Whispering Gums has a lovely review here.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, (aka: Personal Library).