Sometimes for many different reasons a book will pass you by. This is what happened for me with The Book Thief by Markus Zusak when it was originally published over ten years ago now. Not because I wasn’t interested but because it is based on a subject matter that I’ve always found quite difficult to read about.
However one thing that I love about books is the way they can quite unexpectedly find their way into your life when the time is right. One day, quite by chance, I was chatting to someone about books and reading. I’m always delighted when an unknown common ground can be found between people who really don’t know each other at all – I always feel like I’ve found a friend when we have books in common. He was reading The Book Thief at that time and told me how much he was enjoying it. I admitted I hadn’t read it and so he offered to loan it to me. Just a few weeks later I began reading.
I have to say that it is one of the saddest books I have ever read but right from the start I was so absorbed with the writing that I just could not turn away from this story, no matter how much it hurt to read. As someone who has spent some time over recent years pulling books apart and analyzing the method and use of language I can honestly say that I thought Zusak’s technique rather wonderful. Although the events are centered on a young girl, the narrator is death himself. Zusak states at the end of the story that he wanted to make ‘death a vulnerable narrator wh0 is haunted by humans, as opposed to the typically macabre and superior being’ and in doing this I believe it made the harrowing events more bearable to read. The death I observed through his narration was gentle, caring and beautiful yet pushed to his very limits by the actions of humans.
Five hundred souls.
I carried them in my fingers, like suitcases. Or I’d throw them over my shoulder. It was only the children I carried in my arms.
Some of the characters are difficult to read, so harsh and cruel their actions but the ones who really fill this story, the ones who stay with you are the kindest souls imaginable, even through their suffering they still have the ability to love and see the beauty in life. Getting to know these characters carried me on through the book and although I quite often knew the fate of some early on within the story, I was still compelled to read on, to follow them to their final moments and shed a tear. For the sorrow was still there and possibly more so because I knew it was coming. There was a sad inevitability to events.
The story within The Book Thief is very dark and yet Markus Zusak adds so much beauty with his use of language and colour. It flows through the book even in the bleakest moments and is a constant reminder that with darkness there is always light. It is this contrast, this dark subject that is expressed with such grace and elegance that highlights the horror and the contradiction that human beings bring to the world. As death himself says…
I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words so damning and so brilliant.
Words themselves played an important part within the story. Zusak questioned their power and their ability to create such hate, such misery. Liesel is saved from her nightmares by words when she is taught to read and write by her papa. They become a comfort. She then in turn gives the gift of the written word when she reads aloud to those sheltering with her from the bombs, bringing them too some comfort and a brief escape from their fear as the world above them is torn apart. Yet Liesel soon begins to understand that hate and destruction also grow from words. That were there is love there is hate, beauty there is monstrosity and where there is courage, there is also despair.
The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consulation or wordly tricks to make us feel better. What good were the words? She said it audibly now, to the orange-lit room. ‘What good are the words?’
A beautifuly story and I’m so glad I read it. It will stay with me always, as will the memory of the souls and what they represent, that death so gently removed along the way.