Sometimes when I sit down to write my blog posts, my book reviews, I find it really tricky to begin…to know where it is that I should start – today is one of those days. I’ve spent the last twenty minutes faffing around googling quotations from The Book Thief (which I’m supposed to be reviewing). It’s helped in a way, the spirit of the book which I finished a couple of weeks ago now has returned to me somewhat. It has also hindered, for it has confirmed to me the enormity of the task I’m trying to complete. I think it’s far, far easier to review a book which you dislike, a book which angers you or a book which you consider poor. To review a book you rate and esteem, that’s a weightier task altogether. And so it is that I find myself struggling for an adequate beginning, an opening if you like. Where to begin?
As you may have already gleaned, I was very impressed by Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, it’s one of those books that you know will stay with you all your life. Aptly, it will haunt you. I say ‘aptly’ because this book is a story about death, and consequently life. It is narrated by the most omnipotent of all narrators, death himself. It opens,
“HERE IS A SMALL FACT
You are going to die.” and then,
“…does this worry you?”
It’s a pithy start, don’t you think? Certainly it draws its readers in. Quickly and shockingly, with a quick intake of breath. I’ve always enjoyed books with narrators that directly address their reader. There’s something quite powerful about a direct address, it makes you suddenly aware of yourself as you sit, perched somewhere, spying on the story’s characters, peeping though the crack in their curtains to observe the lives within.
Although narrated by death, The Book Thief follows the lives of the inhabitants of a small German town during the Second World War. One life in particular is key, the life of Liesel Meminger. I won’t go into too much detail about the events of Liesel’s life, not wanting to provide too many plot spoilers (I want you to read the book for yourself), but I think I must say that as the story transpires we find her living in the house of Hans and Rosa Hubermann in the small town of Molching. It must be said that one of the very great joys of this story is the relationships kindled in that tiny house on Himmel Street. The relationship Liesel builds with Hans is one of the story’s most touching and enduring. He is one of the kindest men I’ve found in fiction, the phrase ‘heart of gold’ exists because of men like Hans Hubermann. Liesel says of him, “Sometimes I think my papa is an accordion. When he looks at me and smiles and breathes, I hear the notes.” The peace Liesel finds in Hans Hubermann’s care is that solid but comfortable knowledge that there is someone truly good in her world.
Indeed, Zusak’s characters are superbly written. He paints with the smallest of brushes where people are concerned, each person is presented with the most intricate care and attention. As each new character is introduced and built, you learn snippets of information that cling to them until, much like a snowman, their character rolls into your mind, fully formed. Hans’ wife, Rosa, is a gem amongst characters. She’s a real grow-er. To begin with you imagine that you are being presented with that typical matriarchal terror-in-an-apron style woman, but that is merely the mask Rosa wears to avoid attention from her neighbours. When the door onto Himmel Street closes, a door into Rosa’s heart opens and you see her capacity for kindness, resourcefulness and endurance. She is surviving for those she loves.
It is Zusak’s gift for writing characters that are so three-dimensional and believable that gives his book its worth. The beauty of The Book Thief is not in its setting or events, but in its people. Even death, in his omnipresence, is presented as a complex being:
“I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race – that rarely do I even simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant…I am haunted by humans.”
Death, in Zusak’s story, is by no means the vengeful sickle-weilding force to end life, but, instead he is a caring soul who bears witness to the lives of those he ‘collects’ and is touched by their kindnesses, their hopes, their stories. He is care-worn and wise and somehow worthy of the responsibility he bears.
The Book Thief is also beautifully structured, not always written in a linear way – death addresses his readers every now and then, offering snapshots into the future. The book is carefully built, though. And it is a pleasure to observe Liesel and her friend Rudy as they grow up and come to understand aspects of the world around them, and to revolt against the injustices they find. Liesel’s is a powerful story, worthy of a book thief.
As you may imagine, being set in Nazi Germany, the backdrop of The Book Thief is often rather bleak and the larger events of the world force themselves into the little lives of those who inhabit the story. I will say this though, it is Nazi Germany as you have never seen it before. Zusak shines a light on the beauty of living, even in the darkest and saddest of moments. He confirms to us that people are rarely simply bad or good – wrong or right – cowardly or brave. Life is bigger than these black and white distinctions and ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are the most subjective of labels. Death is easy, it comes with such surety…it’s life, living, that is so beautifully messy.
“You cannot be afraid. Read the book. Smile at it.”
Markus Zusak, The Book Thief