Saturday, 18 June 2011

The Book Thief ~ by Markus Zusak

There are so many reasons why I just LOVE this book:  the characters... the characters … the characters... I just can’t seem to get them out of my mind.  Right now I can’t even bring myself to find a home for this book on my shelf.  I just can’t bear to say goodbye, not yet.

But there is another reason why I love ‘The Book Thief’: so much of the book is about books, writing them, stealing them, reading them - it’s not surprising considering that Hitler’s power began with words and a book - Mein Kampf - translated as My Struggle.  Hitler’s own book becomes part of Liesel’s story when it is painted over and re-used as blank paper for others to write on.  In this wonderfully symbolic way, Hitler’s ideas are erased,  obliterated and replaced by a story of love and hope. What a wonderful piece of literary justice!  

The book is all about the power of words, to warp and twist, as with Hitler, or to save and heal, as with Liesel.   Liesel uses the words of the ’Word Shaker’, a short story within the text, to empower Max.  The words ‘climbed onto him’, and so he grew in stature, remembering his own story, the courage moving from her to him.  She reminds him of what he has written, words that he wrote to make her feel better.  She sends  them back to him.  The result is powerful and liberating.  

Hitler’s so-called ‘struggle’ is counterbalanced by the real, daily struggle of ordinary people in Germany during World War Two, a major theme of the book. So many characters are living on the edge, living day by day until the next meal, usually consisting of mama’s unpalatable, watery, pea soup.  For the entire book the central characters are starving.  Rudy is constantly talking about food and finally it is this ceaseless hunger that leads the children into thievery.  They raid an orchard and then make themselves ill from over-eating, but they daren’t take their loot home, for fear of a beating.  Like a scene from ‘Huckleberry Finn’, or ‘Oliver Twist’,  Zusak explores the universality of childhood; the adventure, the skulduggery and the fun, yet choosing war-time Germany for the setting.

It’s refreshing to see this brutal war from the German perspective.  We learn that there is much diversity of wealth, from the Mayor on the hill, to the lowest, starving Jew, bending to pick up a crust of bread on the street.  We see varying degrees of anti-sematism too: the children are made join the Hitler Youth organisation on turning 10, and must attend even if they do not wish to do so.  All adult men, even those secretly hiding a Jew in the basement, must join the Nazi Party.  Mr Steiner does not hate the Jews, but he is not unhappy when their businesses are destroyed, for as a tailor, it means more work for him.  We learn that not all Germans were Nazis, that such sweeping statements reveal nothing of the many subtleties that made up German society in WWII, which was as diverse as any we have today.  There are heroes and villains as always, but how novel to have some German heroes to consider for a change.  
The characters are beautifully drawn, so memorable: a boy who paints his face black and runs like Jesse Owens; a neighbour who spits on the door every time she passes; a mayor’s wife who silently sits in a library missing her son; Alex Steiner, alone in his tailor's shop, missing his whole family; neighbours crowded together in the basement, listening to a little girl reading a story.  Like the best loved creations of Charles Dickens, each of Zusak’s characters have a visual symbol that we associate with only them.  Consider Max, hair like feathers or twigs; Mama, a wardrobe; Papa, a silver eyed accordion; Rudy, with hair the colour of lemons; Ilsa, her fluffy hair and bath robe; and Alex Steiner, a wooden man, with hair like splinters.  Their descriptions are so very visual that these characters are etched into our memories. I cannot think of Rudy without a lump forming in my throat, or Hans, wonderful, darling papa, without the distant sound of an accordion playing or the scent of tobacco rising somewhere in my mind. Even tough, booming Rosa crept under my skin and as for Liesel, I think I will always carry a piece of her with me, most noticeably present whenever I visit a library.

And finally, if you read the book blurb and learn, with horror, that Death is the narrator, please fear not.  He is warm, considerate and simply charming.  He seems to love the characters as much as we do.  He, too, is a book-lover, an idea which really made me smile. How could we fail to like a fellow book-lover?  He has re-read Liesel’s story thousands of times.  In fact, he is a rescuer of books!  We see him peeking over people’s shoulders, picking up parts of their stories and returning to them over the years, just to find out how their stories end.  He cannot resist a good tale and gently leads us through the plot, holding our hand at the sad bits and delighting in the joy of human laughter.

This book is brimming with optimism and life, not bad for a book narrated by Death!  The unspeakable horrors of WWII are touched upon lightly, but in the main this book deals with life in a small German town, when times were hard and strange.   It’s easily one of the best books I’ve read in years.  Indeed, Zusak has given me a treasure and as such I will place it at eye-level in my book case, so I can catch glimpses of it as I pass, hearing the soft sigh of an accordion and knowing that it is close at hand whenever I feel the need to visit to Liesel or Rudy, and part-take in a little book thievery.    

5 of 5 stars


Lisa said...

I can't believe I didn't listen to everyone and read this one sooner! It really is marvelous, isn't it? I loved the poetry of it.

My Book Affair said...

Yes Lisa - the poetry! He uses the oddest adjectives, putting odd words together and making something completely new and fresh. And what a great story too. But if you like poetry, you should give Ghost Light, by Joseph O'Connor a try... every line just sings! Perhaps you already have. You comment is really appreciated.