This is definitely the best book I’ve read this year. It took me a while to sit down and write about it because I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it justice with my words. My copy is a big chunky hardback, 580 pages long, but it didn’t bother me to carry it around anywhere I went, while I was reading it. Instead I walked proudly with my big book under my arm, eagerly waiting for the next opportunity to continue the story.
A warning: the first few pages feel strange. The narrator takes his time to introduce us to the main story, playing with us, giving glimpses of what’s to come. We soon find out that it’s Death who’s speaking, and it’s his (oh, by the way, is Death male or female? Who knows…) peculiar point of view that will escort the reader throughout the book.
As soon as Liesel Meminger was introduced, I was scooped into the story and I wasn’t let go till the end.
At the start Liesel is 9, it’s 1939 and it’s Germany. She’s travelling with her mother and brother to a small town called Molching to meet her future foster-family, the Hubermanns. Her parents are communist, which is almost as bad as being a Jew, therefore her mother is forced to abandon her children and flee. During the journey Liesel’s brother suddenly dies, leaving her to face her new life alone. She has only one thing to remind her of the last day she saw her mother and brother. It’s a book that she picked up on the graveyard, “The Gravedigger’s handbook”. The first book stolen by the Book Thief.
Things don’t look very bright for Liesel. Her new Mama is a wardrobe-shaped woman who yells constantly and call her names. Her new house is bleak and cold, in school she’s forced to attend classes with smaller children due to her lack of education, and her nights are filled with nightmares of her dead brother. But not only Liesel is a tough little girl who knows how to defend herself, she also finds out that her new life is not as bad as it looks. Mama sounds fierce and abusive, but she’s also caring, in a very rough way. And Papa…he is the one that shows her unconditional love since the beginning. With his silvery eyes, his gentle heart and kind manners. Every night, when Liesel wakes up screaming, he is there, with his comfortable presence and his soothing accordion. Night after night he brings safety and trust back into her life, just by being there. Until one day they decide to use their sleepless nights to teach Liesel how to read. They use “The gravedigger’s handbook”, the book she stole. And letter by letter Hans Hubermann introduces Liesel to the art of reading.
During the day Liesel spends most of her time outside, on the street, playing football with her lemon-haired friend Rudy, who adores Jesse Owens and would do anything for one of her kisses. When the war begins, though, food becomes scarce and their main occupation is to find a way of filling their bellies.
One day they find a pfennig on the street and the first thing they do is to go to the shop and buy mixed lollies, please. But with one pfennig they can only afford one lolly and so they have to trade sucks, ten each.
Hurry up Saumensch, that’s ten already.
It’s not, it’s only eight – I’ve got two to go.
Well hurry up then. I told you we should have got a knife and saw it in half…
Come on that’s two.
All right. Here. And don’t swallow it.
Do I look like an idiot?
A short pause.
This is great, isn’t it?
It sure is, Saumensch.
I love this scene. It’s funny and sweet and it describes perfectly life during the war for two kids. When a pfenning found on the street and a shared lolly can make your day, leaving a happy grin on your red mouth.
Liesel’s life is due to change once more, though, the day Max Vandeburg, a Jew looking for a hiding place, arrives in her house. The basement, where she used to have her reading classes, becomes Max’s room, and soon enough the two of them establish an unlikely but enduring friendship.
There’s so much to tell about this story that I don’t think I can condense it here in few words. You have to read it yourself. All I can say it that it’s full of love. For reading, for people, for life. It’s incredibly full of love, in a time where hatred and violence was taught and encouraged. I guess this was Mark Zusak’s point. He wanted to tell the story of those who, although never rebelled against the regime, didn’t approve of it and just tried to survive it, while helping each other. It’s ironic that he chose Death as the narrator. But as you may have understood Death is not the evil skull-like face that we imagine. He’s just and observer, that happens to be distracted, amused or even moved by the “leftovers”, the survivors. This is a story about one of them.
Also, it’s a story about the power of books. Books are stolen (or saved, if you like), and in exchange they save lives, in many different ways. It’s books that save Liesel from her nightmares. A copy of Mein Kampf helps Max, the Jew, to reach the Hubermann’s basement. Their words have a soothing power, when they are read aloud by Liesel during the raids in the shelter.
It’s an ambitious book. Its structure is original, the language is mature and skilful, the sentences short and striking, the theme not an easy one. And the result is a very powerful book, which will stay with me for a very long time.
A last warning: be prepare to shed more than one tear for the ending.
And one advice: believe the hype!
other blog reviews
Nymeth at things mean a lot
Kristi at Passion for the page
Stephanie's confessions of a book-a-holic