Saturday, 7 December 2013

The Book Thief

The Book Thief
The Book Thief
Marcus Zusak

   I first read the Book Thief several years ago and loved it. That said though, it was one of those books that I found difficult to keep in my memory. For whatever reason, a couple of years down the line I had all but forgotten the plot with the exception of a few details and rough outlines of scenes.
   With the release of the film adaptation (which, based on the trailers, I’m not really looking forward too) imminent, I decided this would be a good time to revisit the book and rediscover what it was that I loved so much about it the first time I read it.

   The book thief tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a young German girl sent to live with a new family at the outbreak of World War II. Her adoptive father, accordion player Hans Hubermann bonds with Liesel over her interest in books, teaching her to read. As the war goes on, life becomes ever more difficult for the Hubermann family when, as payback to a man who saved Hans’ life in the Great War, he agrees to hide Jewish fist fighter Max, in his basement.

   The plot of the Book Thief is actually pretty standard stuff, it’s a story you’ve seen in various media a thousand times. The oppression of the Nazi party gradually strangling Germany, a character or characters with unvoiced opposition to Hitler, the hiding of Jewish characters etc. etc. It’s not a bad story don’t get me wrong, just not an original one.

   What makes this book truly engaging is its presentation. The book is narrated by Death himself, who discusses both the book thief’s life and his part in the war. He regularly talks about sifting through wreckage and carrying away the souls of the deceased. It’s a touch of mysticism that allows the reader to read this familiar story in a completely new way. Through Death’s non-biased account of the war, the Germans are not the stereotypically evil characters we’ve come to accept, they are humans, just like everybody else. A group of people trapped in a war that’s just as harmful to them as the rest of the world.
   Death’s otherworldliness also dictates the writing style. The descriptions in this book are just wonderful, memories have colours, sounds have smells. The unique descriptions really help to sell the idea of a story told by someone outside out world.

   There are also occasional breaks in the text. Mostly for Death’s sideways interjections but most memorably for Max’s storybook, written on painted out pages of Mein Kampf, which tells Max’s life story. It’s a very enjoyable, but bittersweet piece.

   The Book Thief is a brilliant novel, despite the plots skeleton being fairly clichéd, the meat on the bones is remarkable. The characters are engaging and the book manages to entertain with scenes of childhood play and break your heart with the gripping but dark story of Max. If you’ve any interest in the film and haven’t read the book, do yourself a favour and give it a read.

Marcus Zusak

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