Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak
584pp, Doubleday/Bodley Head, £12.99
The state of Israel gives non-Jews who saved Jewish lives, or attempted to save Jewish lives, the formal recognition of being Righteous Among the Nations. In the introduction to his 2002 book The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust, Martin Gilbert quotes Baruch Sharoni, a member of the committee that recognises the Righteous, as writing "[S]o many more who could have contributed to the rescue did not ... I see the savers as true noble souls of the human race, and when I meet with them I feel somewhat inferior to them. For I know that if I had been in their place I wouldn't have been capable of such deeds." It is this sentiment which resonates as one reads Markus Zusak's truly remarkable novel.
In The Book Thief, the man hiding a Jew named Max Vandenburg is decorator and part-time accordion player Hans Hubermann. One of the reasons why he's hiding this particular man is because Max's father saved his own life when they were both German soldiers in the first world war. He and his wife Rosa have also adopted a girl named Liesel, the main character of this tale. The growing relationships between Hubermann and Liesel and, later, Liesel and Max Vandenburg are central to the plot.
To reveal that the story is told by Death himself may well conjure up images of Terry Pratchett's Death, in the Discworld novels, or even seem distasteful or wholly inappropriate considering the subject matter. In Zusak's hands, this narrative device is none of these things. It gives a unique and compassionate voice to a narrator who can comment on human's inhumanity to human without being ponderous, "worthy" or even quite understanding us at times.
This is a beautifully balanced piece of
storytelling with glimpses of what is yet to come: sometimes misleading, sometimes all too true. We meet all shades of German, from truly committed Nazis to the likes of Hans Hubermann. Zusak is no apologist, but able to give a remarkable insight into the human psyche.
In addition to Liesel, the book thief of the title, characters who particularly stand out are Rudy Steiner, a close friend who is obsessed with the black athlete Jesse Owens; Ilsa Hermann, the mayor's wife, who has never recovered from the loss of her own son; both of Liesel's adoptive parents; and Max himself, who writes and illustrates a strangely beautiful short story for Liesel over whitewashed pages from a copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf
Zusak, an Australian author, has said that writing the book was inspired by two real-life events related to him by his German parents: the bombing of Munich, and a teenage boy offering bread to an emaciated Jew being marched through the streets, ending with both boy and Jewish prisoner being whipped by a soldier. It is, however, the way in which Zusak combines such terrible events with such believable characters and the minutiae of everyday life in Nazi Germany that makes this book so special.
A number one New York Times bestseller, The Book Thief has been marketed as an older children's book in some countries and as an adult novel in others. It could and - dare I say? - should certainly be read by both. Unsettling, thought-provoking, life-affirming, triumphant and tragic, this is a novel of breathtaking scope, masterfully told. It is an important piece of work, but also a wonderful page-turner. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
· Philip Ardagh is currently working on a novel for older children, due for publication by Faber in 2008