TITLE: THE BOOK THIEF
AUTHOR: MARKUS ZUSAK
PRICE: Ksh. 990
EXTENT: 584 pages
REVIEWER: VERAH OMWOCHA
Available at Text Book Centre
Disclaimer: You don’t fancy Death as a narrator? Don’t touch this book. You hate a super sad ending? Don’t bother. Historical fiction doesn’t work for you? You know what to do. A long read is not your thing? Goodbye.
But if a good challenge seems inviting, let’s discover the power of words together.
Death introduces himself as the text starts off. He is busy during the war times, as expected. But somehow, a nine year girl steals his attention when her brother dies on her way to her would – be foster family. Liesel Meminger is that girl. She is taken in by the Hubermanns; a family that adores her.
Other than stealing Death’s attention, the little girl steals something else, a book titled The Grave Digger’s Handbook from her brother’s burial place. As Liesel settles well into her new family at Himmel Street, Hitler stretches his powers throught Germany. Her papa teaches her how to read and her hands itch to touch another book, and another. She steals the books from Nazi book burnings and from the Mayor’s library.
Liesel’s hunt for words is unquenchable. In an interview, Markus Zusak is quoted to have said, ‘‘I thought of Hitler destroying people with words, and now I had a girl who was stealing them back, as she read books with the young Jewish man in her basement and calmed people down in bomb shelters.’’
I love how the narrator manipulates nature and things to feel what humans feel; the sky and the colours. Sample this; ‘The kitchen cupboards were the shape of guilt, and his palms were oily with the memory of what he’d done.’’
The narrative techniques in this book completely pull you into the story, into Liesel’s world, into Himmel Street. You’d want to put this book under your mattress, precisely where you lay your head so that the words can soak up into your dreams. Zusak paints words in images, beautifully layering them against each other.
War is war, whether in Germany or Asia or Africa. The result of war makes it hard for death to take a vacation; he has to roam the earth, collecting souls. The text paints the ugly scene that is war – starving children, people huddled in basement shelters, deaths, pain and loss.
Those who are not taken by death punish themselves even more, they live in the shadow of guilt- the guilt of ‘death, why didn’t you take me instead?’ The guilt of living as other’s die. “Living was living. The price was guilt and shame”.
Death makes such a good narrator. He is lyrical and sarcastic and sometimes adopts a sympathetic tone towards humans. I almost liked him.
He says,…but don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with it”. His disjointed way of telling a story, the spoilers and dictionary definitions kept me reading. And of course the little facts like ‘‘you are going to die’’
This is a story about survival, endurance, death, grief, friendship, family and how all these things superbly blend.
Since I love quoting, I’ll give you a few:
“It’s probably fair to say that in all the years of Hitler’s reign, no person was able to serve fuhber as loyally as me. A human doesn’t have a heart like mine. The human heart is a line, whereas my own is a circle, and I have the endless ability to be in the right place at the right time. The consequence of this is that I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both. Still, they have one thing I envy. Humans, if nothing else, have the good sense to die”
“The only thing worse than a boy who hates you is a boy who loves you’’
‘‘Can a person steal happiness? Or is it just another internal, infernal human trick’’
‘‘The leftover humans…they’re the ones I can’t stand to look at, although on many occasions I still fail. ….I witness the ones who are left behind, crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair and surprise. They have punctured hearts. They have beaten lungs.’’
‘‘I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.’’
‘‘Some of you are most likely thinking that white is not really a colour and all that tired sort of nonsense. Well, I’m here to tell you that it is. White is without question a color, and personally, I don’t think you want to argue with me.’’
And the very last, ‘‘ I am haunted by humans.’’