It was only a couple of weeks ago that I finished another book set in a war zone – Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. It’s funny when there’s an unintentional synergy between books you’ve read – though Hosseini’s novel is set in Afghanistan and Zusak’s The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany, both share a similar scene – bombs descend on a residential street, and a young girl is left without parents.
That’s where I’ll end the comparisons though. Zusak’s novel is a different beast altogether, narrated as it is by Death himself.
What could inspire the formidable figure of Death to retell a story? Well, it’s the story of a young German girl, Liesel Meminger, who is being left by her mother with foster parents to look after her. On the way to Mölking, the town that would become her home, her brother dies on the train. The boy is hastily buried in a small town along the way and this presents Liesel her first opportunity to steal a book.
Yes. Liesel is the book thief, and The Grave Diggers Handbook is her first steal. Even though she can’t actually read. That part comes later.
Liesel finds herself left with Rosa and Hans Hubermann, while she suffers the twin trauma of abandonment by her mother and the death of her brother. It’s Hans who reaches out to her, helping to comfort her at night when she wakes from her terrifying dreams, and later on it’s Hans who will teach the girl how to read in the small hours after her nightmares wake them both.
She will find friendship with a young neighbour, Rudy. The pair have a comically abrasive relationship which is initially influenced by Rosa’s calling her nearest and dearest Saukerl or “filthy pigs”. They embark on various stealing expeditions together, partly to overcome boredom, sometimes to overcome hunger when rationing is at its worst.
Another character who knocks on the Hubermann’s door is Max, a Jewish fist-fighter who is on the run from the Nazis and who seeks shelter in their basement. They take him in – Max’s father once saved Hans’ life, so he owes him – but the reality of harbouring a Jew in Nazi Germany is paranoia. But at the same time, his presence seems to bring out the best in the family. Even the acerbic Rosa is deemed to be “good in a crisis” and tends to the sickly Jew with motherly affection.
You might wonder how life pans out for the protagonists. Well, it’s Nazi Germany, so don’t expect happy endings for everyone. There’s fear and suspicion, violence and even death. But even as our narrator notes, in the midst of one of the darkest eras in human history, there’s beauty. In the way the Hubermann’s take in Liesel and look after her, Liesel in turn takes care of Max. Hans Hubermann is central in this – a German who refuses to treat the Jews with contempt, who becomes a father a young girl and who honours favours to long-dead friends.
Like other reviewers, I found the ‘narrated by Death’ aspect a little offputting at first. Death’s language is sensuous, mixing smells and tastes and colours and sounds. Once the book hits its stride though, there’s a charming simplicity to the story. Death – like Khaled Hosseini in his novels – doesn’t mind telling you spoilers ahead of time. He’ll tell you that a character is going to die, but the intriguing thing is the journey – how they die, what event transpire to get to that point.
The characters themselves are so sympathetically written that you will shed a tear for them when you hear some of their fates.
It’s interesting to read a book about the Second World War that’s written about the trials and tribulations of regular Germans. Maybe too often we capitulate to the idea that Germany was entirely a country of aggressors and the tales of victims are of another nationality. It’s interesting to get a glimpse into the way the Nazi party worked and the compulsion to join up, even if you disagreed with their politics, just to be seen to fit in.
At its core though, The Book Thief is, as described by the New York Times, “achingly sad”. But it offers a modicum of hope, of lives rebuilt after the war, and that’s what makes it a beautiful novel. Zusak doesn’t mire us in a glum Germany and leave us there. When the worst of the book’s events are over, he shows us that there are survivors and how they pick up their lives. A beautiful story, well worth a read. Even at more than 550 pages, I gobbled this up in about 3 days (which is obsessively fast, by my standards).