The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I first fell in love with a book when I was five. It was a Ladybird Book called Chicken Licken, a tale of a little chicken who creates panic among the other birds (Henny-Penny, Ducky-Lucky, Goosey-Loosey, Turkey-Lurkey etc.) by running around telling them the sky is falling down when an acorn falls on his head.  They all run to tell the King (as you do) who happens to be partial to poultry – on his plate, that is. It does not end well for them…

A year later I fell in love with a poem. It was in the collection Now We Are Six by A. A. Milne, which was a birthday present from my sister, and the poem was Binker, about an imaginary friend. I loved it so much I learnt it off by heart. “Binker – what I call him – is a secret of my own, /  And Binker is the reason that I never feel alone.”

I was the kind of child that read with a torch underneath the bed covers because I couldn’t wait to find out how the story ended. I longed to have adventures like the Famous Five, go to boarding school like the girls at St Clare’s and Malory Towers, find a doorway into another world like the children in The Narnia Chronicles and The Secret Garden. I didn’t see it at the time – I’d already found that doorway and smashed it wide open.

By the time I hit my teens, books had become a ‘subject’ to be tested. I was taught to pick them apart, like dissecting a lab-rat or an ox-heart, separating plot, character, theme, voice and person, weighing, labelling and analysing. Did that diminish my love of words or stop me getting lost in a good story? If you’re reading this blog, I expect you know the answer.

Enter The Book Thief.

I like to think I’m open to reading any book but deep down I know I’m a bit of a literary snob (one of the downsides of a ‘literary education’). Although I’d heard of Zusak’s book – it is, after all, an “international best-seller” – it wasn’t on my ‘to read’ list precisely because it was a “best-seller”.  Then a close friend bought it for me for my birthday…

The Book Thief is narrated by Death, the setting is Germany during the Second World War, and the titular book thief is a young girl called Liesel Meminger. Liesel is nine when she and her brother are sent to live with a German couple, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. The relocation is for their safety (their parents are communists, their father has already disappeared) but her brother dies during the journey. At his funeral Liesel steals her first book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook.

She steals her second book, The Shoulder Shrug, at a book burning to celebrate Hitler’s birthday. Liesel is terrified because she thinks she’s been spotted (which she has), though rescuing a banned book from a pile of ash is not as dangerous as what follows: the Hubermann’s decision to help a Jewish man, Max Vanderberg, by hiding him in their basement.

Hitler Youth, Dachau, rationing, air raids…there’s a lot of war-stuff going on. But there is also a lot of book-stuff, too: Hans patiently teaching Liesel to read, the Mayor’s fragile wife allowing Liesel access to the books in her library, Max writing a book especially for Liesel.

At heart (and it has a big heart) The Book Thief is about books and words, about being helpless without them, about hunger for them, about their amazing power, whether for evil or for good. Admittedly I found it a bit schmaltzy and twee in parts and the Death-narrator conceit a bit gimmicky and contrived (at first, it grew on me).  Yet as a bibliophile, how could I not enjoy reading a book that is essentially a love letter to books? Thanks, Angie. 

Rating: ** Worth reading

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