We’ve had a mixed bag of tricks at the Manchester Book Club this year. Scintillating literature with heaps to discuss, wonderfully entertaining novels with nothing to be said and books that are just plain meh. Happily, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak fell into the first, and most perfectly brilliant bunch.
Liesel Meminger lives on Himmel Street with her winsome foster parents and a raft of quirky, loveable and often quite frightening neighbours. This is the heart of Nazi Germany, full to the brim with vice, prejudice, threat and horror. With her eyes opened to the joys of reading by her humble adopted father yet forced to witness the atrocity of public book burning, Liesel is at the centre of a tornado. As the daughter of (more than likely murdered) political parents, she is a little girl constantly on the brink of destruction. Wise, observant, yet still innocent beyond measure, her world is thrown into further chaos by the appearance of ‘Jewish fist-fighter’ Max Vandenburg, hiding under the stairs in her basement. As her love for the written word and desire to protect and preserve life grows, Liesel becomes the Book Thief, smuggling forbidden words to bring comfort to those in peril around her.
Inspired by the sinister childhood memories of his European parents, Zusak unwittingly wrote a novel born out of a novella, a book that has become an international Bestseller, been translated into numerous languages and won countless literary prizes. Released as a blockbuster film courtesy of 20th century fox on the 15th November, it seems Zusak may have truly reached the zenith of his powers.
Apart from expressing some periodically saccharine sentiments, using Death as an omnipresent narrator is a genius, if slightly lazy, narrative technique. In this, the author allows himself a little poetic breathing space, room to manoeuvre around wartime Germany and explore a little, collecting souls as he goes.
Although Zusak’s novel deals with the plight of the Jewish people in a sensitive, realistic manner, this is not a war book saturated with or overwhelmed by the Holocaust. However exceptional she may be, Liessel is a German schoolgirl with blond hair, a Hitler Youth membership card and a requirement to toe the line. Despite the horrors that surround her, her experience is ultimately one of an ordinary child and that allows for all the more beauty and simplicity in the narrative and all the more repugnance at what lurks at the periphery. Beauty lies in the most deceptively simple of acts; a new word scrawled on a wall, a piece of bread given to a stranger in need, the power of a good story used to drown out the sounds of an air raid…
This is a book (seems silly to say) for book Lovers, with a capital L. Experiencing an entirely different perspective of World War II, we, like Death, are truly haunted by humans.
WWII Propaganda – Nazi Germany by James Vaughan via Flickr