Title: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Genre: Historical Fiction/Fantasy
Time to read it: 4 days!
Synopsis: There is a special room in her house, a room filled with joy, pain, wonder, fear. In that room, the warm bellows of accordion notes breathe out cigarette smoke and laughter. In that room, the soft susurrations of paintbrushes dream of better days and knock out matches against the Fuhrer. In that room, a little girl learns to read, learns to write, learns the power of words. In 1939 Nazi Germany, Liesel Meminger and her foster family live in the small town of Molching. Every night, Liesel leaps out of her dreams with a scream. She cannot forget the day her brother died, the day he coughed and then breathed no more – the last time she ever saw her mother. It was on that snowy winter-chilled day that she stole her first book, The Grave Digger’s Handbook. From then on, her career as a little saumensch of a Book Thief, a Standover Man and Word Shaker, began. The Book Thief chronicles the lives of Liesel, her best friend Rudy-with-hair-the-colour-of-lemons, her foster father and mother, and the secret man hidden in the basement. All from the point of view of the tired, lonely soul-collector, Death, who takes a few moments out of his busy life to follow Liesel’s story. Written with humour and sincerity, Markus Zusak pens his characters straight into the hearts and imaginations of his readers. Like his character Death, we can’t help but sit beside Liesel under the glow of a kerosene lamp and listen to her tell us a story.
I think part of me still lives between the pages of this book. It’s a very intense reading experience, partly because of Zusak’s writing style: distinct and succinct. Here is masterful writing! Well-crafted, well-thought out, every word is just enough, every image vivifies. His writing is one synesthesia after another.
His characters become deeply buried into your heart until their voices crowd out real life for a while. There is Liesel, a fighter of a girl with a tender heart and a penchant for stealing. There is Rudy with his crazy antics, his drive to win and his cheekiness. There is Hans and his stupid compassion and his wife Rosa and her booming curses and endless pea soup. There is Max and his beautiful gifts and his quiet living. It was amazing how easily each of the characters slid into my imagination and stayed there during the whole experience. You live intensely as one of them for a few moments of your life. You know how those reading experiences are like: you bark out laughter, you snort out sobs, you mutter in discontent, and you’ll likely be doing this up in the early hours of the morning. That’s the gift of a good book.
Even how the book is set-up is unique. Every once in a while, there are little tidbits of narration, or whole segments of illustrated stories. You get nice little surprises along the way. Here, Death’s narration doesn’t get in the way of the sincerity of the reader’s connection with the characters. His voice emerges then fades then re-emerges. He tries to spoil the surprises in the story, but before you have time to dwell on it, the story drags you back under. That’s one thing that is really crazy about this book. At the beginning of every chapter, you could easily be spoiled in terms of the general plot. Under each chapter heading, Markus Zusak does what I think can be story suicide – he lists out some key things that are going to happen in the chapter, or he blatantly tells you, sometimes in the voice of Death, that this is going to happen sometime later on in the book. But he is such a powerful writer that, even though you may have already clued in on what is going to happen in that chapter, you still more than 100% enjoy his telling of it in more detail, and when those moments come you are still invested in them. This book is not heavily reliant on plot at all, but on the power of words.
It was inevitable.
The depressing pea soup and Rudy’s hunger finally drove them to thievery. It inspired their attachment to an older group of kids who stole from the farmers. Fruit stealers. After a game of soccer, both Liesel and Rudy learned the benefits of keeping their eyes open. Sitting on Rudy’s front steps, they noticed Fritz Hammer – one of their older counterparts – eating an apple. It was one of the Klar variety – ripening in July and August – and it looked magnificent in his hand. Three or four more of them clearly bulged in his jacket pockets. They wandered closer.
“Where did you get those?” Rudy asked.
The boy only grinned at first. “Shhh,” and he stopped. He then proceeded to pull an apple from his pocket and toss it over. “Just look at it,” he warned them. “Don’t eat it.”
The next time they saw the same boy wearing the same jacket, on a day that was too warm for it, they followed him. He led them toward the upstream section of the Amper River. It was close to where Liesel sometimes read with her papa when she was first learning.
A group of five boys, some lanky, a few short and lean, stood waiting.
There were few such groups in Molching at the time, some with members as young as six. The leader of this particular outfit was an agreeable fifteen-year-old criminal named Arthur Berg. He looked around and saw the two eleven-year-olds dangling off the back. “Und?” he asked. “And?”
“I’m starving,” Rudy replied.
“And he’s fast,” said Liesel.
Berg looked at her. “I don’t recall asking for your opinion.” He was teenage tall and had a long neck. Pimples were gathered in peer groups on his face. “But I like you.” He was friendly, in a smart-mouth adolescent way. “Isn’t this the one who beat up your brother, Anderl?” Word had certainly made its way around. A good hiding transcends the divides of age.
Another boy – one of the short, lean ones – with shaggy blond hair and ice-colored skin, looked over. “I think so.”
Rudy confirmed it. “It is.”
Andy Schmeikl walked across and studied her, up and down, his face pensive before breaking into a gaping smile. “Great work, kid.”
He even slapped her among the bones of her back, catching a sharp piece of shoulder blade. “I’ll get whipped for it if I did it myself.”
Arthur had moved on to Rudy. “And you’re the Jesse Owens one, aren’t you?”
“Clearly,” said Arthur, “you’re an idiot – but you’re our kind of idiot. Come on.”
They were in.
When they reached the farm, Liesel and Rudy were thrown a sack.
Arthur Berg gripped his own burlap bag. He ran a hand through his mild strands of hair. “Either of you ever stolen before?”
“Of course,” Rudy certified. “All the time.” He was not very convincing.
Liesel was more specific. “I’ve stolen two books,” at which Arthur laughed, in three short snorts. His pimples shifted position.
“You can’t eat books, sweetheart.”
Rating: 5 indoor snowmen