The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

The Star (St. Lucia) - - BOOK REVIEW -

By Clau­dia Elei­box

Ipicked up this book know­ing noth­ing ex­cept that I had heard only for­mi­da­ble re­marks about it. There­fore, I was in no way pre­pared for the num­ber of heart­breaks I would ex­pe­ri­ence while read­ing it.

First of all, you need to know that this book is nar­rated by Death. Not a skele­tal, hooded crea­ture, al­though he col­lects the souls of the dead, but one who deeply sym­pa­thizes with the sur­viv­ing. The story is not at all mor­bid or grue­some, and fam­ily, kind­ness and love are ma­jor themes. Death is per­son­i­fied and dis­joint­edly re­lates the life of Liesel Meminger of whom he is re­minded by ac­counts writ­ten in a book he stole from her. Iron­i­cally, Death is not the thief of the book’s ti­tle; it’s Liesel.

The Book Thief is set dur­ing the Holo­caust from the per­spec­tive of poor and nor­mal Ger­mans. Zusak states in in­ter­views that he uses this view­point be­cause of the sto­ries his par­ents told him about World War II. This makes the novel dif­fer­ent to oth­ers set dur­ing that time: it shows that Ger­mans, in­clud­ing the blonde and blue-eyed, were per­se­cuted for do­ing what we would now con­sider to be the “right” thing, whether it was help­ing Jews as they marched along the road or con­ceal­ing them in base­ments; or not hang­ing the Nazi flag from win­dows on Hitler’s birth­day.

The nar­ra­tor care­fully ob­serves the na­ture of hu­man be­ings in the story. It forces one to think of the im­moral and in­hu­mane ac­tions that we do, es­pe­cially to each other.

Liesel Meminger is an eleven-year-old Ger­man girl who never knew her fa­ther. Hav­ing lost her mother, her younger brother dies on the train ride to their fos­ter par­ents’ home. Af­ter her brother’s small fu­neral, Liesel steals her first book “The Gravedig­ger’s Hand­book”.

The fos­ter par­ents are the multi-tal­ented Hans Hub­ber­man and foul-mouthed Rosa Hub­ber­man who turns out to have a warm heart. “Make no mis­take, the woman had a heart. She had a big­ger one than peo­ple would think. There was a lot in it, stored up, high in miles of hid­den shelv­ing.”

Hans is an ac­cor­dion­ist and a painter by pro­fes­sion. He teaches Liesel how to read her stolen book in the silent hours of the night, right af­ter her reg­u­lar dose of night­mares about her brother. She de­vel­ops a love for books, and for Hans, and she finds com­fort and so­lace in read­ing while liv­ing in the mid­sts of a war. “Papa, you saved me. You taught me to read. No one can play like you.”

Liesel slowly set­tles into her new home and be­friends Rudy who has “hair the colour of lemons”, her next door neigh­bour who reveres the ath­lete Jesse Owens so much that the anec­dote of him paint­ing him­self in char­coal is con­tin­u­ously re­ferred to. They par­tic­i­pate in the child­hood plea­sures of foot­ball, steal­ing fruits and go­ing to school. Liesel has se­cret joys of her own like steal­ing books from Nazi book burn­ings and pri­vate read­ing ses­sions in the Mayor’s Li­brary.

Even­tu­ally Liesel has to keep the se­cret of Max Van­den­burg, the son of Hans’ Jewish friend. Max is hid­den in the Hub­ber­mans’ base­ment and Liesel is a trea­sure to him. They read to­gether and share pro­found words that will etch into the mem­ory of the reader.

The im­por­tance and beauty of books is res­onated through­out; Liesel is able to com­fort her neigh­bours by read­ing dur­ing bomb­ings and Max presents her with a book as a gift. How­ever, dur­ing the fi­nal bomb­ing in her home­town, books are not what Liesel screams for.

The char­ac­ters and the story seem re­al­is­tic but the style of Zusak’s writ­ing made me feel “on the ou­side” through not hav­ing lived in 1940s Ger­many; not hav­ing seen ev­ery per­son dear to me dis­ap­pear, not hav­ing fought in the war or been beaten on the road.

The reader is not the book thief or Max. But the reader is a mem­ber of the hu­man race. “I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and bru­tal­ity. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t al­ready know? I wanted to ex­plain that I am con­stantly over­es­ti­mat­ing and un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the hu­man race - that rarely do I ever 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 con­sider this book to be a ‘must read’ and I prom­ise that ev­ery tear one sheds is worth the re­minder that we are all shar­ing this earth to­gether. This piece of lit­er­ary art is con­vic­tive and com­fort­ing.

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