The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
Recommended by Suzanne Aldridge. Suzanne is our librarian at school, and does a fantastic job of keeping the place looking tidy yet welcoming, inspiring and encouraging. There always seems to be a new idea for encouraging the boys to read, or a new theme to foster their sense of curiosity. I am sure the frustrations of running a library for 400 young boys are bad enough, but then add in the inevitable times when the room itself is taken over for photographs, or After School Club, or meetings – all of these challenges are met with a cheery smile. I’m sure there are many boys from Aldwickbury who have read books they might never have thought of thanks to Suzanne, and I can now add myself to that list – I’m not sure I would have been naturally drawn to the Book Thief. I don’t know why that is – perhaps a bit of my inbuilt snobbishness veers away from books that trumpet themselves as “THE NO.1 INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER” in the middle of the title on the front cover…
I should learn to can those feelings – this book is based near Munich during the lead-up to and duration of the second world war, and chimes with many other books based in the same time period that I have enjoyed (if that is the right word) immensely. Fundamentally this book tells the story of a poor family that have taken in a foster child, Liesel (the book thief), who later hide a Jewish man who is the son of a former acquaintance of the father. The book centres around the relationships between Liesel and these two men, along with her best friend and the Mayor’s wife, and it is in the observed detail of these relationships that the beauty of this story lies.
Extraordinary circumstances make people do extraordinary things. This novel is based on two real-life events narrated to the Australian born author by his German parents, and they form pivotal points in the story. Whilst there is no hint of apologism for the Nazi regime, the human costs of living in this time and the impossible choices posed to families are examined in a manner that makes them accessible to any reader, young or old.
My one issue with the book was the choice of Death as the narrator. I found this device a bit too contrived for my liking: whilst it enables the narrator to comment without pomposity, I just found it all rather unnecessary. A small amount of scene-setting at the beginning is probably helpful for younger readers, but I found myself wanting to skip through Death’s interjections later on in the book so I could get on with reading the story – I didn’t find his musings anything like as thought-provoking as the narrative contained between them!
That aside, this is a moving tale of life in impossible times – definitely worth ignoring the shouty, self-congratulatory cover!