RAD Book Club review: The Book Thief

16 Feb 2017

Book Club’s latest book was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The story follows Liesel Meminger as she adjusts to a new life in Germany after being taken in by a foster family. However, the events leading up to the Second World War creep into the daily life of her family and friends and lead her into situations that test her strength and courage.

We all enjoyed the book, and one of the things we liked best was that Zusak chose to make Death his narrator. Death guides us through the novel with a distinct and likeable voice and uses his position as an omniscient narrator to foreshadow the events to come. Not just a spirit who carries out his duty,  he has a moral compass concerning good and evil and is not afraid to speak his mind about the people he sees. We thought this was an effective narrative strategy, as Zusak manages to forewarn the reader enough to keep them in anticipation, but not enough to spoil the surprise of what lies ahead for his characters. The Book Thief subverted a lot of our expectations in terms of the plot – most of us agreed that although we thought we might have an inkling as to what happens, and sometimes Death drops hints, the novel continued to surprise all the way to the end.

The book follows the life of Liesel Meminger as she grows up in the German town of Molching. An aspect that we thought made it unusual and compelling, was its rendering of daily life for ordinary citizens in the years leading up to the outbreak of war. The book effectively portrays the stirring of nationalistic fervour in 1930s Germany, and we felt that Zusak has created a really effective novel about huge cultural events impacting on individual communities and families, and the uncertainty in which a lot of German citizens suddenly found themselves. The novel has a very powerful ending because the reader knows the characters in Molching very well by the conclusion, and has witnessed the inexorable march towards destruction.

Liesel (the eponymous Book Thief) attempts to hoard literature from wherever she can, and as she gets older, bonds with her foster family through learning to read with her new Papa. She steals books at pivotal moments in her life, and words and stories complement the action in the novel. Max, a German Jew who is hidden in the basement of Liesel’s house for a time, deconstructs Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, painting out Hitler’s words and putting his own over the top. The family who are caring for him, including Liesel, help him with this, and together they participate in a quiet but powerful symbol of resistance towards narratives of hate.

Although the book is concerned with horrifying events, we did feel that ultimately there was a lot of love in the novel – between parents and children, friends, neighbours and even towards strangers. Though the context of the book is marked by violence and hatred, we thought that it was life-affirming, as it showed that love can be a powerful force for good (although the novel made more than one of us cry!).