Hazel McHaffie

The Book Thief

I love autumn. All those crisp mornings, the sound of crunchy leaves underfoot, fabulous colours. Our copper beech hedge is a golden blaze at the moment. Something to do with the spring drought and cool damp summer apparently.

I’ve just returned from Oxford, travelling by train, and can vouch for stunning russets and vibrant reds through to sunshine yellow everywhere. But speaking of colours … what about this as a description:

‘Summer came.
For the book thief, everything was going nicely.
For me, the sky was the colour of Jews.’

The Book ThiefDeath is the narrator of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It’s 1939. In Germany. The Nazis are increasingly forcing their politics onto the people, poverty and betrayal lurk in the scared streets, and Death is extremely busy. This could easily be a depressing, even macabre book, but it isn’t. Even Death himself is gently compassionate.

‘Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up each soul that day as if it were newly born. I even kissed a few weary, poisoned cheeks. I listened to their last gasping cries. Their French words. I watched their love-visions and freed them from their fear.

In complete desolation, I looked at the world above. I watched the sky as it turned from silver to grey to the colour of rain. Even the clouds tried to look the other way.’

And he is gentle with the reader too, slipping in the occasional spoiler to soften the approach to sadness.

Tucked away in a little town called Molching, on the outskirts of Munich, lives Liesel. She’s a child with dangerous eyes – brown eyes, who has already known death and loss. Late at night her foster father, Hans Hubermann, patiently teaches her to read. Liesel is utterly mesmerised by words, but there is no money for books, so she takes matters into her own hands and acquires them by stealth.

Three men exert a powerful influence over her: a young criminal, a fugitive Jew and a man with a heart of gold. And gradually realisation of the encroaching horrors of war impinge on her childish innocence. She becomes even more intimately acquainted with Death.

Zusak’s writing style is uniquely his own. Strange little curlicued inserts give vital information. Staccato sentences, truncated paragraphs, haul you without mercy into the very kernel of the emotions and experiences of the time. The almost childish writing fits perfectly with the whole life-view of the characters. Its very simplicity tugs at the heart strings.

And seeing things from his own perspective, Death paints wonderfully evocative pictures of …

… the holocaust:

‘When their bodies had finished scouring for gaps in the door, their souls rose up. Their fingernails had scratched at the wood and in some cases were nailed into it by the sheer force of desperation, and their spirits came towards me, into my arms. We climbed out of those shower facilities, onto the roof and up, into eternity’s certain breadth. They just kept feeding me. Minute after minute. Shower after shower.’

… of the blitz:

‘The only sign of war was a cloud of dust migrating from east to west. It looked through the windows, trying to find a way inside, and as it simultaneously thickened and spread, it turned the trail of human beings into apparitions.
There were no more people on the streets any more.
There were rumours carrying bags.’

… of illness and death almost seven decades ago:

‘At thirteen, tragedy struck again when his uncle died.
As percentages would suggest, his uncle was not a hot-head like Max. He was the type of person who worked quietly away for very little reward. He was not a rich man. He did not take what was rightfully someone else’s – and he died of something growing in his stomach. Something akin to a poison bowling ball.
As is often the case, the family surrounded the bed and watched him capitulate.
Somehow, between the sadness and loss, Max Vandenburg, who was now a teenager with hard hands, blackened eyes and a sore tooth, was also a little disappointed. Even disgruntled. As he watched his uncle sink slowly into the bed, he decided that he would never allow himself to die like that.
The man’s face was so accepting.
So yellow and tranquil, despite the violent architecture of his skull –
The endless jawline, stretching for miles, the pop-up cheekbones and the pot-hole eyes. So calm it made the boy want to ask something.
Where’s the fight? he wondered.
Where’s the will to hold on?
Of course, at thirteen he was a little excessive in his harshness. He had not looked something like me in the face. Not yet.
With the rest of them, he stood around the bed and watched the man die – a safe merge, from life to death. The light in the window was grey and orange, the colour of summer’s skin, and his uncle appeared relieved when his breathing disappeared completely.
“When death captures me,” the boy vowed, “he will feel my fist in his face.”
Personally, I quite like that. Such stupid gallantry.
Yes.
I like that a lot.’

It’s salutary to see the war through the eyes of Germans. To realise the enemy is British. The hands that released the bombs that decimate Liesel’s home are those of the Allies. That the young pilot dying in the smoking and broken plane speaks English.

Suspend any preconceived ideas you might have, and if you can, your personal religious and moral beliefs, and let the poetry of this book speak to you. It’s at once moving and challenging, enjoyable and troubling. And when you’ve lingered a while over the last haunting sentence, do let me know which emotion predominates for you.

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