I’ve just finished reading The Book Thief and I know already that it will be one that haunts me for a long time. It is brilliant, in its style, its structure and its message. I love unusual narratives, with creative startling language, and this one is crafted so beautifully that it makes the reader gasp. The last words from Death say it all (and I don’t think that I give anything away by quoting them): “I am haunted by humans”. It’s what pervades the whole novel.
It is set in 1939 in Nazi Germany, and it is, uniquely, I think, narrated by Death himself. The characters are clearly formed and the reader gets to know each one. The main protagonist is Liesel, the foster girl who comes to live with Rosa and Hans Hubermann in their house in a poor area outside Munich. Hans (“Papa”) teaches her to read and write, and this forms the beauty of the story. She forms a firm friendship with Rudy, the boy next door, and together they eke out their meagre existence by stealing food and colour their survival with words. The family harbours in their basement, Max, a Jew for whom Hans has reason to be grateful, and he develops Liesel’s fascination with words. She begins to steal books and shares them with Max and with her neighbours in the shelter during the devastating bombing raids. Liesel and Rudy’s growing understanding of the world around them is shown carefully and delicately through the eyes of Death.
There is so much to this book that a brief review can barely suggest the experience of reading it. The beauty (and sometimes oddness)of the language had something of the poet Dylan Thomas about it. I have read many novels about this period of history and thought that there was nothing new to say, but this one is most unusual and captivating. It certainly left me with much to think about. I can’t wait to see the film; I do hope that it serves the book well.