Makus Zusak’s – The book thief was the novel I turned to upon my return from Australia. Purchased almost 3 years ago based on a recommendation from a friend, I had never gotten around to reading it. But after a 2 year forced separation from my library, running my fingers across the spines of my dearest fiends- I automatically stopped at ‘The Book Thief’
1) Never read it
2) Ohh… narrated by DEATH. This could be interesting.
This was truly- a second first encounter. One in which I actually took notice not just of the jacket and the plot outline- but the artwork on the front. The book narrated by DEATH, and a little girl reading under his shadow. You could also see the scythe on the background. Turning around the plotline described a young girl’s plight in Nazi Germany. My enthusiasm for a moment was deflated. I didn’t want to read another book about the holocaust. It’s a depressing topic. Holocaust fiction has its importance- the memory, the struggles, the atrocities and the helpless resignation of this genocide are important and we should never forget it. But I really just wanted something light to read. I didn’t need an epic, I didn’t need the book to be life-changing.
But ‘The Book Thief’ is different. It is not, as I suspected, a book about a Jewish girl in the holocaust… it is instead a story of a German girl surviving WWII. Small difference you say- but I disagree. Because WWII from the eyes of a 11 year old child who doesn’t understand what communist means or who is an orphan is a very different kind of story. It was not going to be a happy tale, but it was going to be an interesting one.
Having finished the book now, I can tell you the narrative style of the author is brilliant. He leads you down the rabbit hole and spins a yarn that is both imaginative and strangely real. He teases you with what is to come… a death, a kiss… egging you on to read further. But how could he die!! He is so young! While this is not a true story, it the description of wartime Germany, of Hitler Youth, random facts, the bombing shelters in Munich… facts like these enrich the experience. The character of the book thief, the little 11 year old orphan Liesel, who cannot read or write and steals her first book at her younger brother’s funeral is unlike any I have read before. She is innocent, kind and scared. Having stolen her first book, though she can’t read it, she treasures this possession because this was the last time she saw her brother, the last time she saw her mother. That is the way the story hits you with the narrative- finding meaning in small acts like a football match on the streets, learning to read with her foster father, listening to an accordion play… and each stolen book.
What I liked most about this story however was not the Liesel and her book thieveing or her friendship with the Jew her foster family hid in their basement. I liked her foster father- Hans Hubberman. A German (house) painter and accordion player- who is a kind man who rejects the Nazi party and loses his income and his son. His is achingly moral, a promise keeper and a savior. His decision to give bread to a starving Jew earns him a lashing and the title of ‘Jew Lover’ – we root for him, smile each time he rolls a cigarette and we are saddened at his death.
Ah… the deaths. It should not come as a surprise that a lot of people die in the book. In fact, of the 10 off characters that the author creates- only 3 main characters survive.
Holocaust literature typically is depressing, and I don’t deny that the ending of the book thief is also very sad indeed. But I can heartily recommend it as an important book that paints a portrait of what it was like to be a German with a heart in those times. What it was like to be innocent in those times.
And if that doesn’t convince you- there is a movie version in production at the moment, so you can watch the story in theatres next year.