Author: Markus Zusak
Genre: Historical, Young Adult(but crossing over into the “Adult” genre)
My Rating: ★★★★★
“Gather ‘round the hearth, folks. Death wants to tell us a story.”
Flipping through the pages of The Book Thief felt exactly like that: the readers slumped on life’s rug and Death sitting nonchalantly on his rocking chair, prattling about a war story. So simple, right? But no…it’s actually more than that.
It is 1939 in Nazi Germany. With the Second World War brewing on the horizon, Death’s workload has increased drastically, and he knows it will shoot up still. In the midst of it all, he stumbles upon a civilian named Liesel Meminger, a girl with a rather impressive book-thieving repertoire and a life story that he couldn’t help but pay heed to. Liesel speaks on how one book from her brother’s graveside—as well as nine others filched from book-burnings and penned by a Jewish friend—changed her life. Now Death is repeating it to us: an account of love, friendship, courage, grief, and survival as told from the words of a child who grew up in a world backdropped by Holocaust.
Stitched together by poetic threads of narration and sewn with patchworks of un-sugarcoated truths about war, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is definitely one of the best reads I have so far this year.
The book is populated with characters that are flawed, believable, and easy to love. Upon her arrival on Himmel (“Heaven”) Street, Liesel encounters the most earthly of angels: the potty-mouthed Rosa Hubermann, the accordion-playing painter Hans Hubermann, the Mayor’s wife Ilsa Herman, the Jesse Owens-fanatic Rudy Steiner, among others. Each character teems with life, and they leave indelible footprints on Liesel’s one tabula rasa of a mind. Like Liesel, the readers will feel like fledglings slowly pushing off patches of eggshell to view the world at war: they will see glimpses of the happenings in a civilian household in Germany, and witness how everything becomes as fragile as a wobbling row of dominoes when Liesel’s foster family decides to keep a Jew in the basement.
Max Vandenburg is the Jew in question, and although he doesn’t have the largest chunk of presence in the novel, he is capable of rooting himself into the hearts of the readers. A rocky young man who once sported the stupid gallantry of challenging death, he is reduced by war to a broken soul who daydreams of knocking out Hitler in boxing matches; an emaciated person who writes short stories on the whitewashed pages of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Effortlessly, Max’s presence always equates to a hard pull at my heartstrings.
But of all the characters, it is Rudy Steiner that I loved the most. That kid, so alive and determined…all he ever wanted was a kiss from the book thief. But fate, cruel as it can get, won’t let Liesel touch his lips until they’re already charred and bomb-hit. I cried copiously when I reached the ‘moment of truth’—I thought the blatant foreshadowing (understatement of the century!) had me prepared, but I thought wrong. I bet everyone who’d met Rudy would let the floodgates open, too. Even Death confessed about weeping for this kid.
Let us don’t skip the charming narrator. It is Death’s voice ringing throughout the novel, but there is no denying the truth about a graceful pas de deux of storytelling between him and Liesel—not in writing style, but in literary hindsight given to the readers. Shifting points of views are nonexistent, but the readers are made to think there is that distant—but clearly audible—bat-squeak echo of two voices melding into each other until they produced only one narrating lips.
This is not the first time I encountered Death as a tale-spinner. When I was in grade school, I met Death in an old story called An Appointment in Samarra—retold by William Somerset Maugham—and fell in love instantly with the speaker. It’s Death as a woman loitering in a Baghdad marketplace, feigning astonishment as she bumps into a soul she is supposed to meet that night somewhere else. And then I was beguiled by Neil Gaiman’s Death from The Sandman graphic novels: the quirky, heartbreakingly pretty gothette who wears sunny smiles, good humor, and the symbol of life dangling from her neck. Next, I met Terry Pratchett’s Death from Good Omens (who also appears in the author’s Discworld series), a hilarious parody of the grim reaper who sees himself as a public servant.
Until Zusak’s version came, I thought no one else could really rival Gaiman’s Death in my heart. Other anthropomorphic representations of demise are largely omniscient; there’s no bone in them that is ever really humanized. But Zusak’s is benign albeit morbidly hilarious, exhausted, and is always baffled by the dichotomy of human nature. “I’m always finding humans at their best and worst,” he says. “I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both.”
He talks in the poetry of colors, toying with the senses and worming his way to the readers’ deepest emotional haven through the most unconventional means. To top it all—I’ll reiterate—he has a heart.
Page by page you’ll be met by the quotidian events in Himmel Street, and it will have you wondering, how can something so ordinary leave dents in me as I walk on? That’s Zusak’s magic. He has written a war story by zeroing in on the sobs of the innocent and the unreleased wails of those killed in their sleep—sounds that are way louder than the screams of bombs in the battlefield.
This is an exceptional novel that I will treasure for a long time, for it is, like Liesel herself, a gem that is extracted from the rubble of today’s post-modern literature.