Set in Germany in the years 1939-1943, The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel, narrated by Death who has in his possession the book she wrote about these years. So, in a way, they are both book thieves. Liesel steals randomly at first, and later more methodically, but she’s never greedy. Death pockets Liesel’s notebook after she leaves it, forgotten in her grief, amongst the destruction that was once her street, her home and carries it with him.
Liesel is effectively an orphan. She never knew her father, her mother disappears after delivering her to her new foster parents, and her younger brother died on the train to Molching where the foster parents live. Death first encounters nine-year-old Liesel when her brother dies and hangs around long enough to watch her steal her first book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, left lying in the snow by her brother’s grave.
Her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, are poor Germans given a small allowance to take her in. Hans, a tall, quiet man with silver eyes, is a painter (of houses etc.) and plays the accordion. He teaches Liesel how to read and write. Rosa is gruff and swears a lot but has a big heart, and does laundry for rich people in the town. Liesel becomes best friends with her neighbour Rudy, a boy with “hair the colour of lemons” who idolises the black Olympic champion sprinter Jesse Owens.
One night a Jew turns up in their home. He’s the son of a friend of Hans from the first world war, the man who taught him the accordion, whose widowed wife Hans promised to help if she ever needed it. Hans is a German who does not hate Jews, though he knows the risk he and his family are taking, letting Max live in the basement. Max and Liesel become close friends, and he writes an absolutely beautiful story for her, called The Standover Man, which damn near broke my heart. It’s the story of Max, growing up and coming to Liesel’s home, and it’s painted over white-painted pages of Mein Kampf, which you can see through the paint.
Whenever I read a book, I cannot help but read it in two ways: the story itself, and how it’s written. They’re not quite inseparable, but they definitely support each other. With The Book Thief, Markus Zusak has shown he’s a writer of genius, an artist of words, a poet, a literary marvel. His writing is lyrical, haunting, poetic, profound. Death is rendered vividly, a lonely, haunted being who is drawn to children, who has had a lot of time to contemplate human nature and wonder at it. Liesel is very real, a child living a child’s life of soccer in the street, stolen pleasures, sudden passions and a full heart while around her bombs drop, maimed veterans hang themselves, bereaved parents move like ghosts, Gestapo takes children away and the dirty skeletons of Jews are paraded through the town.
Many things save this book from being all-out depressing. It’s never morbid, for a start. A lively humour dances through the pages, and the richness of the descriptions as well as the richness of the characters’ hearts cannot fail to lift you up. Also, it’s great to read such a balanced story, where ordinary Germans – even those who are blond and blue-eyed – are as much at risk of losing their lives, of being persecuted, as the Jews themselves.
Writing like this is not something just anyone can do: it’s true art. Only a writer of Zusak’s talent could make this story work and could get away with such a proliferation of adjectives and adverbs, to write in such a way as to revitalise the language and use words to paint emotion and a vivid visual landscape in a way you’d never before encountered. This is a book about the power of words and language, and it is fitting that it is written in just such this way.
The way this book was written also makes me think of a musical, or an elaborate, flamboyant stage-play. It’s on the title pages for each part, in Death’s asides and manner of emphasising little details or even speech, in the way Death narrates, giving us the ending at the beginning, giving little melodramatic pronouncements that make you shiver.
- -Vaitheesewaran J. P., I-Year, PGDM