Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak


1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.
Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.


It's a small story, about:
a girl
an accordionist
some fanatical Germans
a Jewish fist fighter
and quite a lot of thievery.


Publisher's Description

The Book Thief is a beautiful book about an ugly period of history.  There are many books about the second world war and the holocaust, but this book is one of the greats, precisely because it doesn't focus exclusively on the horror, but on the lives of ordinary people living in a small town near Munich. It is the contrast that both humanizes the story and throws the horror into relief: For the book thief, everything was going nicely. For me [Death], the sky was the colour of Jews. 

The heroine of the book is Liesel, whose story moves from tragedy (the loss of her brother to Death and of her mother) to finding a relatively normal life in Himmel Street. There her victories are those of a child: learning to read, entry into the local gang and standing up to the boys at school, but increasingly the sinister presence of Nazism begins to be felt, appropriately enough with the public burning of books. Liesel makes a wonderful spirited heroine: affectionate, loyal and resourceful. I am sure the book's young readers will identify with her.  She grows in maturity with the arrival in the house of a fugitive Jew, Max. She is as the narrator Death says, a survivor. 

Surviving, and the guilt that goes with it, is an important theme in the book. Max feels guilt having left his family behind when he went into hiding. A wounded Stalingrad soldier commits suicide after watching his brother die. And Liesel's foster-father Hans Hubermann is guilty about surviving the First World War when everyone else in his  platoon died. It is that guilt and feeling of debt to Max's father that makes Hans risk everything and hide Max in his house.For me Hans is as much the hero of the book as Liesel. 

Another theme in the book is bravery. Hans is accused by his Nazi-supporting son of being a coward, but Hans' bravery is that of a humane man retaining his humanity when all around him people are at best turning a blind eye to and worse actively participating in terrible crimes. The writer says that what inspired the story was the tale of a man helping a Jew being driven by SS guards and being whipped for his kindness. Hans offers a piece of bread to a Jew, when everyone else stand by watching, and is whipped for it. His gesture will not save the Jew,  but if nothing else, the old man would die like a human. Zusak doesn't leave it at that, because of Hans' impulsive act of kindness, he puts himself and his family at risk, but more specifically forces Max back on to the road.

The Book Thief was sold as a young adult book in the UK, but it gripped this 50+ adult. One reason is the way it portrays dilemmas facing ordinary people living under the Third Reich. We are aware of these, partly because the narrator, Death, uses foreshadowing in his tale and partly because he is trying to understand the human race: I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words so damning and brilliant...  I am haunted by humans.

I really enjoyed this book. I enjoyed its style, at times poetic and striking. So is it great magic realism? It's great but not magic realism. It may appear frequently on lists of magic realist books, but having Death as a narrator does not make it magic realism. There isn't magic in Liesel's world. 

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review

No comments: