Some books are beyond description. I finished The Book Thief over a week ago, letting the plot, the words and the preciousness of the book sink in and plant seeds in my brain. I discussed it at our Heathrow Literary Society, thinking that might help solidify my thoughts. Nada. So I'm just jumping in and hoping that if you are one of the few that haven't read this masterpiece, I will convince you to read it before I'm through.
Synopsis: Liesel Meminger, a nine-year old girl in Nazi Germany, is in transit with her mother and brother to be dropped off with foster parents who can better care for her and her brother. Along the way, her brother dies, and at his gravesite, Liesel finds a book in the snow and takes it. Never mind that she cannot read. She innately understands the power of the written word, and thus begins her life as a book thief.
Liesel's story is narrated by Death. Death, while extremely busy at this time in history, has noticed Liesel to be a very special child. She goes to live with her new Mama, a loud belligerent frau, and Papa, a gentle man who teaches Liesel to read every night after Liesel awakes from nightmares. Liesel is embraced by the quirky, endearing villagers, each of them a character larger than life. But WWII isn't just a war that affects just Jews. It takes its toll on hard-working, God-fearing Germans like Liesel's new community. To combat the horrors of the war, Liesel continues to seek out "free" literature...from a pile of burning books, from the Mayor's library. Words, in the right hands, have tremendous power, and ultimately save her life.
Death also gives us a peek inside his daily routine, which isn't pleasant. Death is not the grim reaper, however, waiting anxiously to grab souls from dying bodies. He is distressed by all the carnage of the war, is over-worked and doesn't make the decisions, but a job is a job. The worst for Death is the children, but he assures us that he gently carries each child's soul in his arms with care.
My thoughts: Oofah. Where to begin? As most of you are aware, I have a "thing" for WWII novels. I've read many of them, from all perspectives, all nationalities, non-fiction and fiction. This particular portrayal, however, is perfect in every way, if you would forgive me for calling anything in this era "perfect". It is innocent, it is dear, it is humorous, it is heartbreaking.
The characterization is absolutely amazing. Everyone in the story, from Liesel and her foster parents, to the Mayor's shell-shocked wife who "allows" Liesel to steal her books, to Liesel's impish friend Rudy who dreams of stealing a kiss, to Max the Jew hidden in Liesel's basement, to the hoodlum fruit stealers...these are characters that are so real you can close your eyes and conjure them. In your heart, you know them and you love them. Halfway through the book, I said to myself "it is WWII, and I know someone is going to die, and I can't stand the thought of losing a single one of them". So I was falling apart (and laughing at all of their antics at the same time) for most of the story.
The prose is so very clever and beautifully simple. Using Death as a narrator is clever. Death is really a likable and conversational fellow, which keeps the tone from becoming too heavy most of the time. He leads into each section of the book with an outline of what is to come, which acts as a teaser. He offers side notes, definitions and commentary to certain events that occur. If his presence wasn't so ominous, you wouldn't mind having him around more often. In fact, it is easy to imagine that when your time comes, it wouldn't be so bad if he were there to help you on your way.
I think it is important to note that this book has been marketed as Young Adult book. I think it is fair to say that this book would be appropriate for teens, but is more beautifully written than most books for adults. It is proof positive that YA books can be exquisite and complex, and need not talk down to its audience.
A word about the audio production: I'd never listened to the narrator Allan Corduner before. He seems to be a reader of YA, notably Inkdeath by Cornelia Funke and Magyk by Angie Sage. But bravo on whoever found this man, because he was delightful to hear, and perfect for the role. Fans of the audiobook will be thrilled with the experience.
Thoughts from the Heathrow Literary Society: All of the members present, save one that didn't finish the book and seemed to have an issue with WWII in general, were deeply touched. They were charmed by Liesel, Mama and Papa, Rudy, and even Death. One of the members called it "a keeper". I sat back and watched my friends with earnest, animated faces talk about this amazing read. It made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Bottom line: One of my best books of 2010. Don't let the topic scare you. This is a must-read.