‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak, Reviewed; Narrated by Death; a German Family, Jews, the War, a Thief; Book Clubs
The Habit of Reading
I've always loved reading but the number of books I was getting through dropped over the last few years (busy, busy!). To try to remedy this, I joined a book club and it's worked; I now have to make sure I read at least one good book a month so as not to lose face when I arrive at the group and don't know what they're talking about! The first book when I joined was this one - a thoroughly enjoyable read, even though the content is about as serious as it gets.
Why not join or even form a book club yourself? It only needs a few people to start and it can grow from there. Each person can recommend a book they've read in the past, or suggest a new story to read, or there are good lists available on line from other book clubs. Re-visit the classics, try some contemporary novels or look at some poetry - whatever takes your fancy. From reading, conversations grow, friendships are formed and the mind is broadened; what's more, it gets you reading regularly and is a worthwhile adventure in itself. Give it a go!
Marcus Zusak is Australian born, with German and Austrian parents. He lives in Sydney, is in his 30s and has written stories for adults and young adults. ‘The Book Thief’ started as a story for young adults. Zusak was influenced by war-time stories he'd heard from his parents, especially the bombings his mother experienced in Munich. She also told of an incident when a group of Jews were marched past on their way to a concentration camp; this poignant scene is included in the story.
The tale follows Liesel, a German girl of a poor family taken to be fostered on the outskirts of Munich where we’re introduced to the people in her street and a few others. She cannot read; she is the book thief and ‘acquires’ several books by various means. The plot follows her while the books act as a thread to bring aspects of the tale together.
One unusual fact - it is narrated by Death; an amusing but insightful death who doesn’t always enjoy his job but does it with tenderness, as illustrated by the following;
‘..my one saving grace is distraction. It keeps me sane. It helps me cope.... [I] make distraction my holiday.’
‘...I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A colour will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.’
There is also a refreshing way of leaving little reminders, summaries and comments, throughout the book.
‘HERE IS A SMALL FACT
You are going to Die.’
This is followed a few sentences later by an afterthought:
‘REACTION TO THE AFOREMENTIONED FACT
Does this worry you?
I urge you - don’t be afraid.
I’m nothing if not fair.’
Also unusually, Death often indicates what’s going to happen without spoiling the suspense!
‘He had already cheated me in one world war, but would later be put into another.... where he would somehow manage to avoid me again.’
Rudy, the son from next door, is Liesel's comrade in crime; a loyal friend who is often in trouble. He admires Liesel and is always asking for a kiss. There is a band of school friends who experience the war and its horrors with her. Liesel's foster father helps her adjust to her new life; his quiet, honest approach forms a strong bond between them. Then there’s the Mayor’s wife, a pathetic recluse who lives in the big house on the hill; she has an important link with Liesel, through the books in her vast library.
Liesel is wrenched from her mother, brother and the life she knows. She gradually becomes close to her new ‘papa’, a gentle accordion player who teaches her much; he's the firm rock in a chaotic world and encourages her to learn to read. The plight of the Jews is illustrated graphically alongside the lives of ordinary German citizens, portrayed in a realistic, sympathetic light, trying to get on with their lives, trying to survive. One Jew in particular, hidden by ‘papa’ in the basement, shares Liesel’s love of words.
Solid facts about the numbers killed by war (how busy Death is kept without any holidays or anyone to cover for him!) and Death’s way of talking to the reader means that you’re involved in, part of, the unfolding of this story. It is easy to read; the narrative flows and the chapters are short. The subject matter is not light, however. Many facets of how the war affected people are shown through the varied characters, some sympathetic, some not so; those of the more privileged class are not necessarily any happier either. Throughout it all, though, is a great depth of humanity and a highly developed portrayal of each individual.
It is a tale of Death, of many contrasting people, of the importance of books and writing.
It is a tale of strength and courage, of weakness and helplessness, of ambition and resilience, of vision and brainwashing.
It is a tale well constructed, well written with unusual, refreshing imagery:
‘When the train pulled into.... Munich, the passengers slid out as if from a torn package.’
Though tear-jerking and harrowing, this story also shines with warmth and humour, without taking the edge off the cruelty and futility of war. It’s a novel which leaves its mark on the soul, a book to re-read over the years, one of those in which you find something new each time you return to it.
To read about Markus Zusak
Random House - Features - then search Markus Zusak
Author of awarding winning books such as The Book Thief and I Am the Messenger
A film of this book was released in early 2014. It did not have good reviews so obviously did not live up to the book. This is a must-read!
© 2012 Ann Carr