The Book Thief is the story of a young German girl, Liesel Meminger, whose mother has been taken away by the Nazis. She goes to live with foster parents in a poor part of Munich and passes her days stealing books with her best friend, Rudy (who is famous in their neighbourhood for having once painted himself black in a gesture of admiration for the athlete Jesse Owens!) The book is told from the perspective of Death, who is busy scooping up those souls sentenced to death by Hitler and his cronies.
It sounds good, right? But for some reason I found The Book Thief quite difficult to get into. Zusak is fond of giving his readers information in little snippets, with little fact panels, and I found this broke up the narrative in an irritating way. I wasn’t transported away by the book – sometimes it felt like I was reading a bunch of newspaper clippings.
Anyway, this feeling subsided somewhat when Zusak started to flesh out the relationship between Liesel and her foster father and mother. Papa is the quintessential ‘good man’ who works for a cup of tea when his poor customers have no money to pay him. He is the man who hides a Jew in is basement (on the basis that he once knew his father) and feeds him when his family has little more than pea soup to live on themselves.
But what of Mama? The foul-mouthed, wardrobe-shaped woman with a fondness for dispensing watschens (slaps). Not immediately such a sympathetic character, Mama is nevertheless my favourite. After all, she also took in the orphaned girl whose mother, a reputed communist, had been taken away. She too is a Jew-hider and a Jew-feeder. She too shows bravery. That is what this book is about – the bravery of ordinary people who stand to gain nothing from their kindness. In that, it is a quietly hopeful book.
Since I first heard of The Book Thief, I’ve loved the idea of a book written from the perspective of Death. Perhaps that’s why I was slightly disappointed by the end result. The book’s language is beautiful and evocative, its characters are round and real and it paints a truly personal picture of life in Nazi Germany – but I had such high hopes for it and it didn’t quite live up to them, possibly through no fault of its own.