The year is 1939. The place is Nazi Germany. Standing by her little brother’s grave, nine-year old Leisel Meminger’s life is changed forever when she picks up a small object from the snow-covered ground. It’s a book – The Gravedigger’s Handbook, to be exact, accidentally left behind by one of the men who buried her brother. It’s also Leisel’s first act of book thievery, and the beginning of a lifelong love affair with books and those powerful little entities called words.
With the help of Hans Hubermann, her kindly, accordian-playing foster-father, Leisel throws herself heart and soul into learning how to read. In due time, she’s “stealing” books from Nazi-book burnings, and even from the mayor’s wife, who deliberately leaves her library window open for that purpose.
But Nazi-Germany is a dangerous place. And when Leisel’s family shelters a fugitive Jew in their basement, the young girl’s world is once more dramatically changed – both for better and for worse.
The Book Thief – written by Markus Zusak – is the literary equivalent of Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist (2002): artful, absorbing, devastating, beautiful. In short, unforgettable. And though it is classified in the Young Adult section of the bookstore, it deserves the consideration, not only of older teens, but of adults as well.
Death himself is the narrator in this book: an unsentimental – though not uncaring – storyteller trying to make sense of what he sees. He witnesses much misery, but also much beauty in his travels to and fro over the earth. He tells us,
… I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both.
In Zusak’s words, Death is “exhausted from his eternal existence and his job”. He is “afraid of humans – because, after all, he was there to see the obliteration we’ve perpetrated on each other throughout the ages” and he is now telling Leisel’s story “to prove to himself that humans are worth it”, that there is beauty among the ashes.
Such a choice of narrators may sound odd, but it nevertheless works exceedingly well within the framework of the story.
The author’s writing is simply spectacular, reminiscent of greats like Cormac McCarthy and Ray Bradbury. It’s crystal clear, wonderfully descriptive, and as searing as a hot iron. When asked whether such writing came naturally to him, Zusak replied,
I like the idea that every page in every book can have a gem on it. It’s probably what I love most about writing – that words can be used in a way like a child playing in a sandpit, rearranging things, swapping them around. They’re the best moments in a day of writing – when an image appears that you didn’t know would be there when you started work in the morning.
There truly is a gem on every page of The Book Thief. Zusak’s masterful word-craft grips you and begs you to linger over every other sentence, while the intensity of Leisel’s tale compels you to keep going. It is one of those rare cases where the storytelling is as excellent as the story itself.
And the story is excellent. It is a story of love, loss, tragedy, and hope. A story where books are treasured and words are acknowledged as the powerful tools they are. The characters are all drawn with care and finesse, and it was with great reluctance that I turned the final page. I wanted to see more of these characters; I missed them, with all their quirks and flaws and virtues.
As far as content goes, this is a book I would reserve for ages 15 and up. Violence and sexual content aren’t really an issue, but there is a fair amount of swearing, in both English and German. It’s not particularly strong, but it’s certainly not mild either, so discretion is advised.
Theologically, the book is a mixed bag of sorts. Death’s character acknowledges the existence of God and of the hereafter; yet God does not play a large role in the story. Instead of a deity sovereignly involved in the affairs of mankind, this “God” is, for the most part, an aloof one. I should have liked to have seen a more biblical portrayal of God, one more in keeping with passages such as Nehemiah 9:6, “Thou, even thou, art LORD alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth, and all things that are therein, the seas, and all that is therein, and thou preservest them all; and the host of heaven worshippeth thee.”
That aside, The Book Thief is magnificent and well worth your time. It’s exceptional prose and superbly crafted story make it possibly one of the best books I have ever read. Undoubtedly, it the best piece of fiction I’ve encountered so far this year.