What a change from the last novel! On a cold November night, Book Club members gathered to mull over their latest choice, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak.
The Book Thief cannot be described as a ‘feel good’ novel. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s narrated from the point of view of Death, and this takes some getting used to. At first, the reader might be taken aback with this odd choice, but as the story progresses, you get used to the idea and actually come to appreciate this unusual point of view.
The story is set in WWII Germany and follows the sad tale of Liesel Meminger, whom we’re introduced to as she watches her younger brother die on the train she rides with him and her mother.
At the next stop, they bury her brother and this is where Liesel steals her first book, The Grave Diggers Handbook. Ironically, she cannot read, but this doesn’t deter her in the least.
Unfortunately for Liesel, in this era of Nazi Germany her mother is being targeted for her Communist leanings, so she is forced to give up Liesel into foster care in order to avoid persecution.
Liesel is adopted by an older German couple that turn out to be quite the characters. Her newfound mother, Rosa, is a crusty, grudge-bearing, sour woman who is constantly berating everyone in the household. Her father, Hans, is a gentle soul who bonds with Liesel easily and, through much struggle and dedication, teaches Liesel to read in the dead of the night.
Book Club members overwhelmingly liked the book, especially once they grew accustomed to the unique perspectives and language Zusak uses throughout the story. As one member explained it, “even if his words didn’t make any sense, he describes things in such a beautiful way, you end up with a very clear mental picture of what is going on in the story.”
The story doesn’t particularly focus on the war or the reasons behind it, but the persecution of the Jews is constantly in the background and becomes front and centre once Hans fulfills a promise to an old friend and shelters a German Jew, Max Vandenburg, in the family basement.
Max’s arrival signals a shift in the family and Liesel, as they grow to love the young man as part of their family and become personally attached to the treatment of Jews by the Nazis.
The story is also filled with wonderful characters such as Liesel’s childhood friend Rudy Steiner, and they made more alive by Zusak’s skillful descriptions and his clever use of Death as the central ‘being.’
The story easily transports the reader smack dab into the middle of small-town Nazi Germany during the war. The reader is transfixed by the day-to-day feats of survival during this desperate time, watching closely as Liesel grows bolder in her quest to steal more books in a time when simply having enough to eat was a constant concern.
The Book Thief is certainly unorthodox in more ways than one, and although it can be described as ‘melancholy,’ the reader becomes entranced with the cast of characters, no matter how small their role.
Zusak, a young novelist with a number of publications behind him, based the book on stories his own parents told him about surviving the war in Nazi Germany. Primarily a young-adult fiction writer, this was his first book that transcended that age group.
At the risk of giving away too much, this review will stop here. But, it’s safe to say that Book Club members thought that this novel, with its strange format and curious storytelling, was definitely worth the read.