The Book Thief and the power of words

“When she came to write her story, she would wonder exactly when the books and the words started not just to mean something, but everything.”

New book time is always an exciting time. I had resolved this year to make the most of living abroad and attempt to read some of the work that has been born here, in Australia. My local bookshop (rather usefully) has a section dedicated to Australian writers and upon perusing the shelves, I spied a rather familiar title, it having graced many a best seller list and been read by millions of people over the world. Admittedly, I hadn’t actually realised that The Book Thief was written by an Australian author (Marcus Zusak is Sydney-born) but I decided that since the book had such a huge international impact, I had better see what all the fuss was about.

I will begin by saying that I did enjoy the book, and whilst it won’t stay with me for the future, it was certainly a good read. The novel is immediately grabbing, yet the setting is a relatively familiar one within popular culture. We are taken through the war years of Nazi Germany, affected heavily by the Holocaust and by the horrors and the realities of war. What makes The Book Thief different to all those that have come before it, however, is two things: the inventive and intriguing use of Death as a narrator, and the central character Liesel Meminger’s own narrative which revolves around her love of books.

Firstly, the narrator’s voice grabs the reader immediately. Perhaps  it is the cheerful, upbeat tone of his voice that is so captivating, “I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s”, or perhaps it is the ominous foreshadowing of future events that keeps the reader going, but certainly, I found The Book Thief to be one that I couldn’t put down. By personifying Death, Zusak is effectively introducing something that we are all familiar with, especially in wartime literature, yet giving it a voice and a personality, even giving him emotions: “even death has a heart.” Zusak also cleverly uses the voice of Death to foreshadow events in the book, sometimes with devastating and ruthless bluntness. But this is part of the craft, Zusak again pushing the expectations and boundaries of war literature: “Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest and astound me.” Through Death’s gaze, everything is different; people and souls become colours, and beauty and destruction is almost one and the same:”Snowflakes of ash fell so lovelily you were tempted to stretch out your tongue to catch them, taste them. Only, they would have scorched your lips. They would have cooked your mouth.” For the narrative voice that we are granted in the novel, Death is certainly one of the more inventive narrators that I have come across recently, but it is still not why I enjoyed The Book Thief as much as I did.

Truth be told, the main reason that I kept reading The Book Thief was Liesel and her insatiable desire for the written word. Maybe it struck a nerve with me, seeing something of myself in her love of books, but the importance and the power of words is, for me, the central part of the novel. After the death of her brother, Liesel is taken in by Rosa and Hans Hubermann, and it is the kind and gentle Hans, who teaches her to read her first book, one that she stole from the graveside of her brother. Thus, begins the career of the book thief. The narrative oscillates through various scenes of real history, such as a Nazi book-burning, where “burning words were torn from their sentences”, to the personal memories of Liesel Meminger who at one part finds herself in the library of the Mayor’s house, where she can find a welcome escape from the building tension of her reality.

“Books everywhere! Each wall was armed with overcrowded yet immaculate shelving. It was barely possible to see the paintwork. There were all different styles and sizes of lettering on the spines of the black, the red, the grey, the every-coloured books. It was one of the most beautiful things Liesel Meminger had ever seen.”

The Hubermann’s find themselves in the most difficult position that a German could face at this time, as an old promise turns up at their front door, in the form of Max Vandenburg, a Jew who they must keep safe in their basement. Max’s musings on Nazi Germany create the terrifying notion that the fear and hatred bred across the nation was made merely by words, as Zusak makes an intriguing point: 

“Yes, the Fuhrer decided that he would rule with words. … He planted them day and night, and cultivated them. He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany. It was a nation of formed thoughts.”

Max forms these words and thoughts on painted pages of Mein Kampf, and it is the bond he and Liesel share over their love for words that keeps Max going even in the worst of times. Similarly, Liesel reads from another of her stolen books in a neighbour’s basement, bringing comfort to those sheltering from the bombs and destruction overhead, and her words even bring comfort to a neighbour who is fearful for her sons fighting on the front line: “And the girl goes on reading, for that’s why she’s there, and it feels good to be good for something in the aftermath of the snows of Stalingrad.” 

Words and books are hence the great divider, but they are also a connecting force, giving Liesel “an innate sense of power”; uniting people in a turbulent time, and giving hopeless people a shred of hope. This is, I believe, where the real strength of The Book Thief lies, Zusak contemplating the destruction and uncertainty of a turbulent time through the story of an ordinary girl discovering the extraordinary power of words and language. The very contradiction at the heart of The Book Thief that words can be so “damning and brilliant” at the same time is why it is well worth a read for anyone that appreciates the joy and complexity of language and life. 

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