When books are turned into films, I generally try and make a point of always reading the book first. When it came to The Book Thief though, for some reason I ended up doing it the other way around. I really enjoyed the film, and found my desire to read the book only intensify so I went out and bought the book at the earliest opportunity. For the next few weeks I was utterly captivated, so it felt only right to me that it earned a place on my original list of ten books that have stayed with me, which you can see in full here: https://confessionsofa20somethingliteratureandmusicjunkie.wordpress.com/2014/11/17/kerries-fictional-favourites-the-opening-teaser/ Here’s why it made such a lasting impression on me, as free of spoilers as I feel I can make it 😉
The Book Thief was first published in 2005, by Australian author Markus Zusak. It spent over 230 weeks on The New York Times Bestseller List and won numerous awards. Set in Nazi Germany during 1939, the story follows Liesel, and documents her relationship with her foster parents Hans and Rosa, her friendship with Rudy, and how her world is changed the night a young Jewish man named Max appears on the doorstep. When we first meet Liesel, she is on a train to the village of Molching, her brother Werner is taken suddenly ill and dies. At his funeral, she discovers a book called The Gravediggers Handbook, dropped by the Grave Digger’s apprentice. She steals it and is fascinated by it, though she is unable to read and write. In her new home, Liesel develops a close bond with her foster father, and he teaches her. Rudy Steiner, the neighbouring boy takes a liking to Liesel, always asking her for kisses, which Liesel refuses. He has hair ‘the colour of lemons’ and is obsessed with the athlete Jesse Owens; the two become friends and have numerous adventures together, many of which involve theft, including the memorable incident that earns the young girl her nickname. One night, Max Vandenburg appears on the doorstep. He collapses, and Hans and Rosa decide to take him in to return a debt to Max’s father. For years, they hide him in the basement. Liesel talks and reads to Max, helping him regain his strength. Amid all this, the Nazi Party are conducting house raids, and Rudy is selected to join the new ‘master race’, the Aryans.
The thing that I love most about this book is that at its heart it’s all about the power of language and what it can mean to us. Max has a book of his own called The Word Shaker, where he writes all about the power of symbols and words, he writes Liesel a story called The Standover Man, and she is eventually inspired to write her own story. At the end of the process, Zusak gives Liesel one of my favourite sentiments in the whole novel: ‘I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.’ There is also another instance where he writes: ‘I like 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 that’s 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.’ For me, the above sums up why I myself love to write; I love the freedom it gives me to be creative just like Zusak’s child in a sandpit and that I can allow the process to be completely fluid and grow, develop and change. I love that writing gives me a sense of self-worth and passion that is completely unique and makes me feel like I have a voice in those times where it may seem otherwise. I also admire Zusak’s gift for imagery, to me he can make even something as simple as Max seeing the stars move me with profound, beautiful intensity: ‘It was Papa who spoke. “How did it look?” Max lifted his head, with great sorrow and great astonishment. “There were stars,” he said. “They burned by eyes.”
Zusak’s characters also intrigue me in this respect, in the sense that he describes them in such a unique and interesting way that appeals to me infinitely more than if he were to describe their every physical nuance. A favourite of mine is the way Liesel describes her Papa: ‘Sometimes I think my Papa is an accordion. When he looks at me and he smiles and breathes, I hear the notes.’
There is also a lovely episode where Max, who has been having to hide in the basement asks Liesel to describe the day for him. What follows is a description of colours, sights and similes I never would have thought of. The appeal of Zusak’s writing style for me also lies in his narration. “I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A color will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.”
Guessed it yet? The narrator of the tale is Death. It might take a bit of getting used to as he fortells a lot of the action, but he also makes incredibly insightful observations about humanity, at turns beautifully tragic and witty. You could argue that the narrative style detracts from the power of the story and slows it down, but I don’t think this does it a disservice. As I was reading, the ‘slow burner’ approach forced me to focus on and appreciate Zusak’s style, and as a result I’ve yet to find another contemporary male author that moves me as profoundly as he has. I’ve always heard that historical fiction is a total minefield, particularly when it comes to the horrors of World War II, and often that such fiction can be viewed in bad taste. I have tremendous respect for Zusak in creating a story that not only I felt was told beautifully, but that also made me think about the wider impact of its context in a way that I’d never experienced before. It stayed with me long after I read the final page, and is still one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
Next time, I talk the Old South and introduce you all to my most loathed female protagonist of all time….