This book, as it announces on the cover, is an international bestseller. In fact, it remained on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a decade. I, however, have only just got around to reading it for the first time.
Now usually I devour books very quickly. If I do nothing else all day, I can often fit two novels in. But The Book Thief by Markus Zusak demands to be savoured and I am glad I stretched it over five days because it gave me time to ponder the deliciousness of the prose.
Now one thing I will say up front is that I don’t believe in Young Adult fiction. I mean, what exactly is that? A book, is a book, is a book and I care not what age it was written for, if it’s good, people of all ages will read it.
I understand the concept of children’s books – they are designed for humans learning to read and just getting a grasp on written language and also, perhaps, deal with subjects more suited to a more innocent mind. But Young Adult? Surely young adults can read anything and do not need to be mollycoddled with their own age range?
Anyway, this book was originally published in Australia as fiction and was only designated YA when it was published in the US.
The Book Thief is narrated by Death who, it transpires, is neither good or evil but a benign entity just doing a job and commenting dispassionately (for the most part) on the characters in the story.
As many will know, this is a novel about the Second World War and the Holocaust. The Book Thief in question is Leisel, a young girl sent to live with foster parents in a German town. She doesn’t know her father, her brother dies on the journey to the foster home and her mother disappears after dropping her off.
The novel examines the human aspect of war by concentrating predominantly on those not taking an active role – the children, the housewives, the men who fought in the First World War and are a little old for active duty, Death who is having to clear up the mess.
Zusak draws the characters so beautifully, eking out tiny details and drawing you into their lives and relationships, enabling you to enjoy them almost because of their flaws and sharp corners. The exuberant boy who wants to be Jesse Owens, the officious shopkeeper who won’t serve customers until they’ve bellowed Heil Hitler, the cantankerous neighbour who spits on the front door every time she passes.
Ultimately this is another take on the tale of life, love and loss on a backdrop of war. But I haven’t read it quite like this before. It drew me in, made me savour it and then battered my emotions a bit.
It was glorious.