“I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”
I’ve changed my blog name from ‘ecrivante’ to ‘wreaderwriter’, because first of all, I wasn’t keen on the original name anyway, and second of all, I want to start doing book reviews on this blog! I think it’ll help me to think more about the things I read.
Rating: 5/5 stars
I picked up The Book Thief by Markus Zusak in a charity shop over a year ago, and have finally gotten round to reading it. The story takes place in Nazi Germany and follows the tale of Liesel, a young girl sent to live with foster parents in the town of Molching. One of the many interesting things about this novel is that it is narrated by Death. Not the most common omniscient being to tell a story, but it made for a morbid reminder just how prevalent death was at the time. Death is a great narrator, witty and poignant in all the right places, but for large parts of the novel you forget that he’s there. We see Liesel growing up in the midst of a war, with her awareness of her situation growing alongside herself.
Spoilers from here on
If I told you that the first chapter has a death and the last chapter has a death, you might guess from the cyclical storytelling that the book is about death, death, and more death. And you’d be right. But although it is about death, death, and more death, this story is far from depressing. In fact it leaves you with a sense of hope for those facing adversity. The reason for this is because Liesel finds strength in words.
When Liesel arrives on Himmel Street, to the home of her new foster parents, she is illiterate. Her foster father, Hans Hubermann teaches her to read and write. It is a long and arduous process, and at the age of nine, being unable to read is embarrassing. Despite this, Liesel is unfazed by the difficulty of learning to read, and tries her hardest because she had lived without words and knew how powerless she was without them. She eventually grows to love books and reading. She learns the importance of words, how they can be used for good and evil. She learns how bad words can be used to mean something good from her foster mother Rosa, who constantly throws around ‘saukerl’ and ‘saumensch’ (translation: pig, for male and female respectively) often enough that Liesel starts to call her friend Rudy a ‘saukerl’ affectionately.
The use of her words ranges from petty to powerful. Her peaceful fight against the hate in Nazi Germany begins when Max Vandenburg, a Jew, comes to live in her basement. She and her foster parents keep him hidden, in return for Max’s father saving Hans’ life during World War One. Max is Liesel’s first real introduction to the dark end of the Nazi regime. It seems silly to say that now, when we know that the entire regime was dark and terrible, but most Germans were unaware of the realities of it until the war was over. Max turns up on Himmel Street holding a copy of Mein Kampf. As Max and Liesel’s friendship grows, he paints over the pages of Mein Kampf, and writes stories for Liesel. In the first story he makes, he details his own ‘kampf’, and in the last, titled The Word Shaker, he writes how words have affected his life, from the hateful words of Hitler, to Liesel’s words of love and friendship.
I loved the symbolism of this, how words of hate are simply painted over to create peace. But this wouldn’t be a great book if it had a happy ending, so of course one day Max is forced to leave for fear of the house being searched by Nazi officers. They hear nothing from him until one day, when a parade of Jews are being marched down Himmel Street towards a concentration camp, Liesel spots him amongst the crowd. Transformed from a man who dreamed of fighting Hitler in the basement, to a bedraggled, malnourished thing, Liesel’s reunion with him brought a tear to my eye.
The bombs fall in and around Molching, never hitting Himmel Street until…they do. And that heartbreaking moment begins the end of this book. Liesel, sat in the basement reading through the story she has just finished writing, survives the bombing, but her mother and father, her best friend Rudy, and all her neighbours do not. Here is where the beauty of Zusak’s writing truly shows itself. When Liesel is rescued from beneath the rubble, Death’s narration is slow and dreamlike, much like Liesel’s initial thought process before she realises what has happened. It is utterly realistic, and in reading it you can’t help but throw yourself entirely into the story. You walk down Himmel Street alongside Liesel, you cry with her as she sees the dead, tangled bodies of her foster parents, and you grieve with her for the life she had gained and lost.