First a confession of which I am not proud: when I first read the opening of The Book Thief, I didn’t like it much.
I found the narrative voice of Death – really, don’t think Terry Pratchett’s wry, humorous figure, more mankind’s melancholy sense of mortality made real – contrived and the poetic prose too much. I fretted about the tastefulness of a fantastical approach to Holocaust-era Germany. I stopped reading after 50 pages. How wrong can one be?
On the second attempt, I completely fell in love with The Book Thief. That narrative voice – merely participating sadly in events over which it has no control – stands in pitch-perfect contrast to the very human, flawed inhabitants of the small German town of Molching, in which they live on Himmel Street.
At the story’s heart is the eponymous book thief and little girl, Liesel, and her friend Rudy Steiner, who has an obsession about Jesse Owens – from those two interests it’s obvious that this intrepid pair stand outside accepted Nazi thinking, and they are further put in danger when Liesel’s adopted parents (her birth parents having been killed, as Communists) take in and hide Max Vandernburg, a Jew to whom Liesel becomes touchingly close.
Zusak eases the reader into the pressure cooker of Germany under the Third Reich; the sense of the regime’s policies and murderous ethics reaching out like claws from their urban power base into the countryside is hideously tangible. Meanwhile, we see village life through Liesel and Rudy’s innocent play – the loss of that innocence is devastating, and I cried more than once at the novel’s climax.
The Book Thief is a stunning piece of work. Like John Boyne’s Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, it shows how by inventing a new language for a novel, an great writer can open our eyes all over again to horrors we thought we could never see freshly again. If this makes it sound depressing it’s not, it’s full of love and fantastically enjoyable, as any novel about charismatic children should be. It was one of the most popular public choices for World Book Night this year and, I predict, will become something of a modern classic for both older children and adults over the coming years.