Sunday, 9 March 2008

The Book Thief - Mark Zusak

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
rebecca reads


Stephanie said...

Valentina, this is the best book I've read in a very long time!! I read it last year, but it still sticks with me. FANTASTIC!!

I think your review is just great!

Nymeth said...

I completely believe the hype when it comes to this one. So many people that I respect loved it. You are one more. I'm really looking forward to reading it. In fact, I'd pick it up next if it weren't for the fact that I have to emotionally "recover" from Maus first. I don't think I can handle another book that will make me cry just now.

And like Stephanie said, your review is great!

Melody said...

Great review, Valentina! I've this book in my pile so I really look forward to reading it. :)

valentina said...

stephanie - it's the same for me! i've recommend it to my mum and she's read in two days and said it's the best novel she has ever read! amazing:)

Nymeth - I take that Maus was a great read too, I have to check it out one day, it's a graphic novel right? yes, you better read something lighter first cause this is very emotional.

melody - thanks! read it soon, I can't wait to read what you think of it!

Reader Rabbit said...


I found your blog through Thoughts of Joy. I just wanted to say that this is one of my favourite books.

And,your review is great!

Chris said...

I've had this one sitting on my shelf for awhile now and I can't wait to read it...but I keep saving it for something special, though I don't know what exactly that is! Maybe a special challenge that hasn't happened yet :p

But your review is wonderful and has me wanting to read it even more than before. Few books live up to their hype, but I really feel like this one will like you said. Looking forward to it!

valentina said...

thanks reader rabbit for stopping by! I think it will become one of my favourites too!

hey Chris, nice to see you here:)
I think you're in for a treat! don't leave it on the shelve for too long!

Maw Books said...

Hi! I also found you through Joy. I loved, loved, loved this book. Actually the more time that goes by, the more I think I loved it. Yours was a wonderful review. I agree that it's one of the best that I've read in a long time.

Laura said...

All you've said is so TRUE! I loved this book so much, I bought three copies to loan to my family and friends, and the audiobook for my husband to listen to while traveling. This was my favorite book for the year, and one I'll be recommending for years to come!

Framed said...

Wonderful review. I agree with everything. Having Death as the narrator was sheer genius; and I loved seeing this story unfold through his eyes. This is one book I recommend to everyone.

valentina said...

maw,thanks for stopping by, it truly was a great read!

Laura, I think I'mgoing to do the same, and buy it for all my friends, it's a book it can't disappoint!

framed, it's true, I would have never thought it could work that well,but Zusak is such a brilliant writer he managed to create something really unique.

Josette said...

Hi Valentina!

Excellent review of The Book Thief. Now I know what to look forward when I read it later!

Anonymous said...

I've read this book before about five times and it indeed is amazing!! I love Zusak's style of writing.

Sandra said...

This was one of my favourite books the year I read it. I loved it too.
Very nice review.

Anonymous said...

Hi Valentina.
I just came across of your blog,while trying to find a review for this book.
A friend that lives in Dublin recommended me this book..which i bought during the last travel in Ireland and still hadn't read..although his excellent comments :(
For sure after your review and comments cannot wait to read it :)

valentina said...

You should read it as soon as you can, it's my top recommendation of the year, just one of those unforgettable books!