It’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. . . .
Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist – books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau. This is an unforgettable story about the ability of books to feed the soul.
There’s no point in leaving it to question. This is not an easy-to-read book. Initially, I found the prose discombobulated, often grasping for unique ways to convey simple imagery. After two false starts and a significant break between each, on the third try, I finally pushed through the opening chapters
and boy, I’m glad I did. Whether through adjustment or appreciation, the writing style now seems so befitting, I can’t imagine how this story could be told in any other way. What I once perceived as jarring now fits perfectly into the wartime narrative and the constant fear of what may come. Conversely, there’s little in the way of mystery; we know what’s coming. We’re reminded of both the characters’ and our own mortality throughout, given the identity of the narrator. Overall, the effect is one of profundity which resonates long after finishing.
I’ve read criticism regarding the portrayal of Leisl, the protagonist and narrator’s obsession. Some take issue with her closed, wariness, forgetting or dismissing the trauma and secrets she carries and instead of interpreting her as flat or poorly written. In some ways, I can see why some have this opinion, although it’s not one I share. Death conflates her personality with his* own fascination. Not in an inappropriate, Humbert Humbert way, I hasten to add. However, Death builds an air of mystique about Leisl from his own romanticism of humankind which doesn’t align with the depiction of the character. If you’re unable to extrapolate who Leisl is from how she’s perceived by the narrator, it’s easier to mistake her defensive behaviour as one-dimensional. It’s in her relationship with Hans Hubermann, Papa, where we see who she really is: a lost child, desperate for love.
As a general rule, if a book makes me cry or laugh it’s automatically raised to 4 stars. If it makes me do both, it’s 5 stars all the way. While The Book Thief didn’t make me laugh (more like smile periodically, thanks to one Rudy Steiner), I’ll admit to having a weep at the end. Perhaps my maturity or understanding of war - WWII in particular – caused me to shed a tear and kept this story in my mind long after reading. Nevertheless, I prefer to think it’s because this is a special book, uniquely told, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up part of the national curriculum.