There are many books written about the Second World War and Nazi Germany. Some, such as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, have reached worldwide acclaim (though personally I didn’t find it a particularly good book, even if the story was poignant). However, for me, the best book (forgive the superlative, given the subject matter) focused on this period is The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. The main reason for this – apart from a story which left me crying my eyes out and my mother asking me if I wanted her to take the book away, when that was the last thing I wanted – is that it perhaps gives the most impartial and appropriate account of the events, given that: “This novel is narrated by Death” (the statement which is emblazoned across the back cover).
The story, told by Death, a Grim Reaper-like figure oddly mixed with a work-weary (I want to say male) person fed up with their job, focuses around nine-year-old Liesel, the “book thief” of the title. Taken away from her parents, political activists with communist sympathies, Liesel is moved to Molching in Germany to a foster family. Her title as the book thief is won when she steals The Gravedigger’s Handbook from the graveside of her younger brother, and she goes on to steal more books, including one from an infamous Nazi book burning. Death narrates the growing up of Liesel, whose rebuilt life falls into turmoil as her country goes to war and her family try to conform to Nazi society (while at one point hiding a Jewish fistfighter in their basement).
Zusak’s interesting narrative style is due not only to his choice of character, but also the way he makes him speak. As well using some interesting idioms, clearly from someone who has seen too much of the world – dismissing the Nazis as “some fanatical Germans” – Death’s narrative has a juddering structure which keeps you hooked. Interspersed with small announcements, usually wild understatements, ironic and sarcastic in the extreme, Death’s summaries are short, harsh and straightforward, making him an interesting character to listen to (or read from). His jaded approach to the whole book actually serves to humanise him and makes him a particularly sympathetic character. The book’s writing style is unique and not at all gimmicky; instead it moves between adult honesty and childlike innocence, making it unclear whether this is Death’s or Liesel’s story.
The story also serves a good purpose in that it tells the story of World War Two and Nazi society from an ordinary person’s point of view. Not from inside a concentration camp, or from the house of some high ranking Nazi officer, but from the perspective of a handful of citizens in a small street in a small town. By showing the effect on these normal people, not only does Zusak take away the inhuman stereotype of the Third Reich (or at least, a large portion of the German population who were simply caught up in Hitler’s awful fantasy) in a far more subtle way than other stories, but also the terrible consequences of that fantasy, and of war. While Germany was the enemy, there were many citizens who were innocent in the sense that they were not active in Nazi ideology – and when you read about bombs dropping on Liesel’s small town, you realise that it really isn’t that different from the aftermath of the bombings of London and other British towns.
The book, as I said, made me cry excessively, but this is entirely a good thing. The ending, while not exactly happy, is completely moving and very poignant, and I’m not going to go into specifics for fear of ruining it. But Zusak’s handling of emotion is brilliant, and really brings home the damage of war. While Death’s sparse style creates pace through the rest of the novel, his bare truths are incredibly effective in the more shocking, brutal parts of the story – he doesn’t spare any of your feelings. I would recommend this book simply for the feeling you get upon finishing it: of shock and awe and sadness and happiness. There aren’t many books that affect me and certainly not many that make me cry (I may have cried at Titanic, but that is mainly because I was nine and didn’t realise how cheesy it was), but it is hard to read The Book Thief and not feel amazed by the end. It is perhaps one of the best books I’ve read and, as I’ve applied to distribute it on World Book Night, one that I would happily recommend to friends.
*On a side note, I can’t help but feel that I’m being too nice as a reviewer. Too many of the books I review are ones I actually like. Should I be more scathing? For all I know, my ‘pissy’ reviews might be more interesting…