I know for certain that I won’t be able to do this book justice in my review. I do not have the words to convey how Zusak has made the most despairing of times beautiful, the most horrific events life affirming and the history that we know like the back of our hands newly thought provoking. Yet he has done so and if you read only one book this year, let this be it.
The book thief of the title is a young girl named Liesel, growing up in Nazi Germany in the home of adoptive parents after her father is taken away for being a Communist. She is plagued by dreams of her brother’s death and stole her first book in the aftermath – a guide to grave digging that fell in the snow during his funeral. Liesel has an admirer, Rudy, who is obsessed with Jesse Owens, and the two are inseparable. But not even Rudy is allowed to know when her adoptive parents decide to hide Max, a Jew, in their basement. Max too has bad dreams and the two form a powerful relationship that revolves around stories and words. Liesel collects discarded newspapers for Max so he can do the crosswords, she gives him weather forecasts – “the sky is blue today, Max, and there is a big long cloud, and it’s stretched out, like a rope. At the end of it, the sun is like a yellow hole…” – and one day she even builds a snowman for him in the basement. One of the most moving parts of the book is when Max paints out the pages of a copy of Mein Kampf and uses the new whitewashed pages to write and illustrate The Standover Man, a short story for Liesel about their friendship. Later he creates another book The Word Shaker, a fable about the Fuhrer, who Max dreams of taking on in the boxing ring every night and who plants words like seeds so he can grow forests of hateful thoughts,. and hides it for Liesel to find (There’s an image of one of the pages from Max’s book here.)
Every character in this wonderful book is rounded and complex. From Liesel’s adoptive father Hans Huberman, a part time decorator and dedicated accordion player who teaches Liesel to read, to Ilsa Hermann, the grief stricken mayor’s wife, who lets Liesel read the books in their library. Every word on the page feels right and the quirks Zusak employs work beautifully, especially the way he plays with meaning and definitions. He uses understatement to great effect – how could he do otherwise when the subject matter is what it is? There’s no melodrama in the telling and no melodrama in the events unfolding. When Liesel reads from one of her stolen books to calm those hiding from bombs in a bunker, she does so, we are told “with no fanfare”. I’ve not seen the screen adaptation of this novel but I suspect there will be fanfare and I suspect it will reduce me to tears, but Zusak’s simplicity is far more emotive and the tears that flowed when I read the book came from deep inside me.
Our narrator throughout is Death – not a scythe bearing Grim Reaper figure but an altogether gentler, kinder manifestation, who eases people out of life, frees them of their fear and carefully carries off their souls in his cupped hands, like newborns. Death who is desolate when Rudy dies alone, greets Liesel like the old friend she is, and who sees the good in everyone at the last. His commentary, often taking the form of the words on a gravestone, helps us find meaning in what he calls the beauty and brutality of life, whilst his interventions are pithy, wise and always honest. With Death as narrator we get a compassionate, insightful perspective on the Holocaust, though this is no apologist’s version of events. Only Death could tell us how even the clouds tried to look the other way on June 23rd 1942 when 566 Poles were gassed in the first gas chamber in Birkenau And it’s Death who delivers one last epitaph at the end of THE BOOK THIEF: “I am haunted by humans”. Zusak has written a book that perfectly justifies that truth and one that I am sure will itself haunt me for many weeks and months to come.