I was drawn to The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak for several reasons. Of course there has been a great deal of hype surrounding the award winning novel and it’s recent film adaption, but on a personal level, the story also deals with a period of history that has always fascinated me.
1939. Liesel Meminger is a 10-year old German girl, traumatised by the sudden death of her 6-year-old brother on a train to Munich. She ‘steals’ her first book when she finds a copy of the Gravedigger’s Handbook abandoned by his graveside. A few days later she is taken to the small town of Molching to meet her new Foster parents, foul mouthed laundress Rosa Hubermann and her extremely patient housepainter/accordionist husband Hans. One night Hans discovers the book hidden in Liesel’s room, and far from condemning her unsuitable choice of reading matter, he takes it upon himself to teach her how to read.
This ability opens up a whole new world to Liesel, who quickly discovers the true power of words. Hitler’s words uniting (and perhaps dividing) the nation. The potential of her own words to hurt or to heal. The enchanting words of the young Jewish man hiding in her basement…
The novel is narrated by Death. He describes how he first encountered ‘The Book Thief’ while collecting her brother’s soul, and made the ‘mistake’ of becoming interested by her. He reminds the readers that he spent quite a lot of time in Germany between 1939-45. The ensuing narrative often zig-zags back and forth along the timeline of the story, as Death will casually refer to an incident that is yet to come, and then back-track to describe the events leading up to it. He attempts to justify this after dropping a particularly large ‘spoiler’ about half-way through the book.
“Of course, I’m being rude. I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it. I have given you two events in advance, because I don’t have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest and astound me.”
In truth it is a particularly effective device. Far from being off-putting, it actually compelled me to continue on, giving just enough information to tantalize, but not so much as to mar the scenes when I eventually reached them.
The world Zusak creates is beautiful, in spite of the dark background in which it is set. He uses extraordinary imagery: both the town of Molching and its inhabitants are startlingly real. Even though their existence is placed over half a century ago, and half a world away, I found the characters very easy to relate to. They are not ‘evil Nazis bent on world domination’, but ordinary people trying to survive the best way they know how.
I now understand why so many people are raving about this book…I just hope the movie tells the same story half as well.