I usually try staying away from reading reviews apart from skimming through the hardcover blurbs, so I didn’t know much about this book. I knew it has been a regular on the top ten bestseller list and that it was about a young girl living in Germany under Nazi regime. I assumed it would be something on the lines of The Diary of Anne Frank and since I hadn’t read much fiction set on WW2 in Germany, I thought I would give this a try.
It might sound a bit morbid but having “Death” as the narrator works quite well for this book. And when I do think of it, who else or what else can witness the ramifications of a war from all perspectives? Ahh, perspective. That is quite an underlying theme in this book. I have to say, I expected the book to be told from the perspective of the Jews. But this book really isn’t as much about the Jews as it is about Germany as a country and how its people viewed the war and Hitler’s propaganda against the Jews and Communists. How many truly believed in it and how many just went along with it because standing up for the oppressed would mean severe consequences for themselves and their families.
The narrator focusses on Liesel and her life in the town of Molching, Munich. Sent away by her mother, Liesel finds a home in Himmel Street, the poorer part of Molching, with her foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann. She commits her first act of accidental thievery before landing on Himmel Street, when she picks up a handbook on grave-digging at her brother’s funeral. Later she steals more books, salvaging them from book-burnings and breaking into the library of Ilsa Hermann, the mayor’s wife. Soon the books become a source of comfort and distraction, as she shares them with her Papa Hans. Hans isn’t that proficient at reading either, but with his limited knowledge helps Liesel read through the books and ponder over the unfamiliar words. And at its core, this story is about that – the power of words. How words which can create something so beautiful as books, can also be used by one man to brainwash and control the minds of an entire nation. When Papa brings home Max, a Jew and hides him in the basement, the Hubermanns lives takes the turn of .. well, walking on a tightrope every single day. This is when Liesel is forced to grow up and take responsibility of keeping a secret. From everyone, including her best friend Rudy. Over the course of time, Max ceases to be just a secret in Liesel’s life and becomes a very dear friend. It is during this time that Liesel truly understands and appreciates her Papa’s strength of character, her Mama’s resilience. In trying to keep another person alive. To provide shelter in stealth. To provide food when they are barely managing to scrape through pieces of bread and pea soup everyday.
The writing is beautiful and unconventional. Markus Zusak uses liberal amounts of symbolism, facts screaming out like headlines in boldface, and even imagery. My favourite sequence in the book is when Max makes a sketchbook of his life and gifts it to Liesel for her birthday. To make the sketchbook, he uses the pages of Mein Kampf after painting them white, thereby covering his tormentor’s words and supplanting his own. Zusak shows books having a therapeutic effect on both Max and Liesel who are frequently haunted by dreams of their past. Liesel copes by reading and Max.. by writing. Somewhere along the way, she begins to pen down her thoughts too.
The lighter and fun moments of this book come mostly from Liesel and Rudy’s soccer matches, their stealing escapades (books and food) and his attempts to try and be her hero and get a kiss in return. I didn’t like him much initially, but the character grew on me, after the few times he stood up for Liesel and another friend. There were times I wondered whether his “rebellion” against a Hitler Youth Group leader was idiocy, but maybe , just maybe, sometimes it takes a bit of “stupid courage” to effect some change.
There were a lot of sub-plots and Ilsa Hermann’s chapter in Liesel’s life was one of them. Probably the encounter that gave Liesel the biggest gift which helped her get through daily threats of bombing and raids – free access to a library full of hundreds of books. Wracked by the death of her son in WW1, Ilsa spends her days grieving and living as a recluse. Liesel inadvertently helps Ilsa face her loss and come to terms with it.
This is a pretty satisfying read for most part. However, I do feel Zusak got a bit carried away with the “headline-style notes” used by the narrator throughout the book. I found it slightly distracting and unnecessary at times. However the biggest dampener was Death revealing a major plot spoiler half-way through the book. I like a certain degree of unpredictability when I am reading, and maybe that’s why I didn’t feel too pleased when I read the book’s final pages. And I think somewhere I yearned to read more about what happens to the characters later. I didn’t get the feeling of closure that I would have liked.