The Book Thief – M. Zusak

“Here’s a small fact – you are going to die.”

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Okay, I know I’ve said we would talk about ethics this week, but I changed my plans. You might have noticed that I didn’t post last weekend – I mean, surely, this blog is the highlight of your weekend, right? – but in my defense, I just started a new job and things have been a bit busier than usual. (Meaning I spent all of last Saturday on my couch binge-watching The Good Place in my pajamas instead of writing up a blog post. Sorry!)

Good news is that my new job comes with – and you will not believe this! – Free books. Yes. I have basically ascended to heaven where they hand out non-fiction hardcover books FOR FREE. It’s fantastic and I still cannot believe my luck.

But now to our usual program. The book I want to talk to you about this week is one of my favourites – remember The Things They Carried? The Book Thief rates in the same category. I can pick it up over and over, and I  never cease to be amazed by it.

I recently found a copy in my local charity shop and bought it for my little sis, hoping she’d see the magic in it. (The verdict is still out – she promised me to give it a try, even though ‘It’s so long, it’s going to take me forever!’) But then she read the description in the back and I would like to think she was intrigued.

The basic plot is pretty straightforward – it tells the story of a German girl called Liesl in the 1939, who comes to live with foster parents in a small town near Munich. Okay, you say. You mentally tally up everything you know about Germany in the 1939, and you come to the conclusion that this book is a downer.

At this point, I should probably also mention that this novel is narrated by death.

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So this is a story about Liesl, whose parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. She steals books. And Death follows her and the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.

You’ll also meet an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, and a Jewish fist fighter. The stories of all the people living in Himmel Street are woven together, and they slowly begin to unravel amidst the war.

And here’s another thing you should know – Death will visit the book thief three times.

I seem to have a clear type when it comes to books – and The Book Thief ticks all of the boxes.

Deceptively simple style of writing – check.

Zusak’s writing is a wonder. Much like O’Brien, he comes up with these sentences that you cannot forget.

Take this one: “The only thing worse than a boy who hates you: a boy that loves you.”

Or this one: “I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”

But do not think that this book is just great writing. It has a great story, too.

Much like The Guns of August, it makes you forget what you know. You do know, for example, that Germany would be bombed heavily in the years after 1940. You do know that the war will come home. You do know about the burning of the books. You do know all of that – and yet, it comes as a shock when you read it.

Perhaps the greatest thing a story can do is bring the focus from the general to the particular. To tell us one story about one girl in one city. And this is what this book does. You get to know the characters, and you will love them instantly. (Believe me,  you will.) And – this should come as no surprise – but not all of them are going to make it. This is the Second World War, after all.

(Yes, I cry when I get to that scene. I always do. But that’s okay. How could I not?)

This is where I really think the choice of having Death as your narrator pays off perfectly. It’s such a great choice – I am not aware of any other book that does this – and it adds so much to the story. In some way, Death is the link between the bigger picture – what we know, from history classes – and the characters in this story. It works, and you cannot help but admire the story telling skill it takes to pull this off.

Death, in this story, is neither benevolent nor villainous. As he himself says – he is merely a result.

And finally – I’m always a bit wary of non-native German speakers writing German dialogue. Sometimes, I can tell that they plugged it into google translate and hoped for the best. It never quite works – it always seems a bit off.

I don’t know if Zusak has German roots or an excellent editor, but his German is spot on. More than that – his Bavarian is spot on. Liesl’s foster mom swears like a sailor, and she uses the precise words I would hear if my mom would swear. (she doesn’t. But she could.) If you do not speak German (or Bavarian), don’t worry – you will get the jist of the words (plus Death kindly translates it all for you).

I hope this convinced you to give The Book Thief a try. I promise – you will not regret it!

Okay, so next week we are definitively going to ponder ethics! We will talk Kant and Aristotle and all those other dusty dead men who thought they knew what being Good meant.


Have a lovely weekend!

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