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 this 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.
I wasn't planning on reading this book this year despite its reputation as a very good novel and all the positive reviews. WW2 and its horrors seemed just too close, too terrible to read about when my grandmother, who was a girl of about Liesel's age when it tore through her childhood, still sometimes talks about it. However a friend invited me to her book club and The Book Thief was next up so I picked it up from the library. The first few chapters were a bit difficult to get through (Zusak's writing style is somewhat unusual) but the more I read the more I understood what all the fuss is about. Very soon I felt invested in Liesel's story and wanted to know more about her and the other characters. They've gradually come alive and I found a certain sensitivity and wisdom in the way the author was depicting them and telling the story. I particularly liked Rosa, Liesel's foster mother. She was the one who surprised me on more than one occasion with all the layers to her personality and I applaud the author for creating her just the way she is.
The more I think about this book the more I appreciate its prose where a few spare words hold more meaning than whole paragraphs elsewhere and descriptions are so strange that they make perfect sense and stay with you for days ("frightened pajamas and torn faces" did).
Having Death as the narrator allowed for both the more intimate first person storytelling combined with the omniscient third person point of view that is much less limiting and I feel that this combination served the novel very well. It was startling sometimes how human Death seems, with his fatigue, regret, sarcasm, insights into humanity and the occasional bitterness over the things he's seen. Another device I have grown to enjoy were the regular interruptions to provide explanations, translations (much needed with a book so full of German words), and other such asides, it kept things moving and was a little bit of a distraction in an otherwise very serious novel.
The subject of WW2 isn't an easy one, despite being widely covered. Lives were destroyed, whole countries were devastated and something like that isn't easy to get over. There's a lot of books and TV and radio programs that talk about the genocide, about Hitler and his party, but I haven't seen or heard any that would talk about the regular German citizens who were in the middle of it all, their allegiances, their problems, their relationships with the people in their communities who found themselves ostracized for their heritage. Admittedly, I didn't look, but this book was my first window into the lives of ordinary families who lived during those tumultuous years and had to choose which side they were on. The more I read the more the realization that Nazi Germany and Socialist USSR were very similar despite all their differences. The propaganda, the need to be a member of the Party to be able to lead a life that wasn't artificially complicated for you, the poverty and the division of society were present on both sides of the divide, and as much as the leaders of both countries preached from their podiums that the others were evil incarnate now I think that they were just different sides of the same coin. I'm glad that I read this book, for this if for nothing else.
P.S. There is now a beautiful movie out that's based on this wonderful book, I haven't seen it yet, but judging by the trailer the film-makers have stayed close to the story