Last week I got to re-read The Book Thief, and quickly remembered why it’s one of my favourites. It’s a simple story but brings out such a range of emotions – it makes me laugh, makes me cry and at times makes me so angry with the world we live in that I don’t quite know what to do with myself.
The novel, which is narrated by Death (obviously – who else?), is set in Germany during the Second World War, and tells the story of Liesel, a young girl who is adopted by Hans and Rosa Hubermann when her parents are ‘taken away’. As the war rages and gradually moves closer, Liesel adjusts to her new life in Himmel Street, making friends (and enemies), and discovering a love of reading thanks to the tireless efforts of her adoptive father, Hans. But she also comes to understand the harsh world of Nazi Germany, what really happened to her parents, and the fate of the Jews.
The ever-present theme is books, stories and words, with the immense power they have to do both good and evil. Liesel, the Book Thief of the title, comes to love reading and ultimately it’s a book that saves her life. As someone who’s quite fond of them myself, I can relate – although I’ve never needed to steal one (yet).
I was reading the novel (for the third time) because it was this month’s choice for book club. I’d lent my copy to a friend and didn’t get it back until a few days before the meeting, but fortunately that didn’t matter because, just like the previous two times, I flew through it. Partly this is because of the way it’s written, with lots of short, manageable sections (Markus Zusak is known as a children’s author, and this comes across in the way the book’s structured). But mostly it’s because I love all the characters, even the foul-mouthed Rosa, and genuinely care about what happens to them. This is made all the more poignant by the occasional spoilers scattered throughout the story, a device that not everyone at book club enjoyed, but which I found really effective.
The other device we had a bit of a discussion about was having Death as the narrator. Personally, I loved it, although others found it a bit gimmicky. Since the background to the story is war, I enjoyed having a narrator who’s both neutral and at the same time deeply involved in what’s going on; I even found myself feeling a bit sorry for Death, who at the end of the day is just cleaning up after the human race and all the terrible things we do. It made me realise that although we may think it is, Death isn’t the real enemy – we should be more scared of each other and the results of our own actions.
(When I made the above point at book club, they all looked at me in mild shock. I think it may possibly be the most profound thing any of them have ever heard me say – and that includes my friend Lorraine, who’s known me for over 20 years.)
Finally, the story brings home the heartbreaking realities of war. It’s very easy for us to only think about how the Second World War affected our own country, but The Book Thief reminds us there were two sides to the story. In fact, take away the German names (and the starving Jews being paraded through town on a regular basis) and Himmel Street could just as easily be a street in London during the Blitz. Most of the characters in the novel don’t even believe in the cause their country’s fighting for, which just makes the losses they suffer all the more tragic and pointless.
As I think is probably obvious, I could talk about The Book Thief all day. Maybe you should all just read it – it might be quicker.