The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. Pub 2005
I don’t recall where I heard about this book, but it must have been in late 2021 because it was on the list I gave as Christmas suggestions. I am very glad I did and that it was included in that Christmas bounty, as it was excellent. I finished it in just 3 days, which at 550+ pages, is a bit of a miracle for me and a testament to how much I enjoyed it.
The story is set in a town just outside Munich in World War II. There are two main characters: Liesel Meminger, an orphan who is fostered by a family in the town, and Death, who narrates the story. This latter item is quite unique, providing the author considerable licence in the commentary about the events of the story from the perspective of an omniscient character (which is essentially what the author is in every story); in this case, the narrator is entirely reliable, if occasionally inscrutable. While the events of the story are not unique – reminiscent especially of The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank – and the political and historical contexts are well known, the characters and situations are beautifully crafted and told, providing a poignant perspective of the day-to-day lives of the people there and then: ordinary people in an ordinary small town, living through extraordinary and bewildering times.
The novel’s title refers to the narrator’s identification of several milestone events in Liesel’s life – each time she steals a book. At each of these instances, there is a momentous shift in the story and in her life. The books become her most precious possessions, and her role as reader a part of her status in the family and community. The elements of words and stories also become a part of the respite and salvation of many of the characters.
Words are also where the author Zusak excels. Rarely does a writer so well and consistently come up with such deliciously descriptive language, but Zusak seems to be a master of this. Throughout the book, he uses simile, metaphor, analogy, and other eloquent turns of phrase that are so perfect they are breathtaking. Some examples (there are dozens more throughout the book):
- The soft-spoken words fell off the side of the bed, emptying to the floor like powder.
- When she looked up, the sky was crouching.
- The light in the window was grey and orange, the colour of summer’s skin…
- He wore a beard and torn clothes. His eyes were the colour of agony…(a lovely syllepsis there).
As you can imagine, it is not a story with a very happy ending – stories from that time rarely are. But it is a moving, surprising, thoughtful, and loving novel. Liesel is an admirable, strong, flawed, young girl, and her experiences of death and trauma amidst the ordinary life of school and family and friends are sadly very ordinary from a place and time of war. Her childhood friendships and experiences are also very ordinary, but the story elevates that ordinariness as if to say that life goes on regardless, which is an odd but fitting thing for Death to say. The impartiality of Death also signifies the ordinariness of the German citizens, a perspective rarely considered in novels about that war; more often, the entire population is tainted by the evils of Nazism, when the reality is much more ordinary: they were all people, too.
The story covers just the war years, with a bit of time before and after. While I typically enjoy it when the author closes off all the characters’ lives at the end if the story, in this novel much is left to the reader’s imagination, for both the time before and the time after, and that feel entirely appropriate here. Ultimately, the book hopeful while still being very sad, and gives an enemy the humanity it deserves through these ordinary and likeable characters.
Fate: while I do highly recommend it, I’m unlikely to read this again so it will go to charity shop or little book library for another reader to enjoy.
Afterword: after completing my own review, I read a few others and was surprised to learn that this is actually young adult fiction (spoiler alert). Surprising given the amount of death in the book, but not surprising (in hindsight) given the lack of scenes and conversations that involve just the adults in the story – all situations are from the kids’ perspectives. I can see that the novel would be appropriate for young adults as there is no sex or foul language (e.g. mature young adults would likely find it enjoyable, given that they likely already learned about much of this in school by now). I did not find it juvenile in any respect, and the violence and sadness (which are necessary in such a story) were appropriate and respectfully presented. While it didn’t dwell on the horrors, it also didn’t sugar-coat or shy away from them. One complaint I read in a review of the film version was that the lack of scenes from within a concentration camp (the fictional town is near to Dachau) meant that the novel gave short shrift to that important part of the war in Germany. I disagree; for me, there was enough substance around all the brutality and ugliness of Nazism to make it real, and certainly the amount that a young girl could have experienced directly in that time and place was appropriate and sufficient to convey the horrors without having them swamp the book and its characters and narrative.