“Here is a small fact. You are going to die.”
It is Death who speaks the novel’s opening lines. And Death himself, for the duration of Markus Zusak’s bestselling novel, will be our narrator. It is 1939 in Nazi Germany and whilst he takes away an increasing amount of souls, Death muses on the unravelling of humanity.
Upon taking the soul of a young boy on a train, Death notices a girl. Her name is Liesel Meminger and she has just watched her brother die. Her mother takes her to a town called Molching, specifically to a street named Himmel, which translates as heaven. Here she is taken into the care of Rosa and Hans Hubermann, a German couple whose son has been lost in the war. With the death of her brother and abandonment of her mother, Liesel must come to terms with her new life under the watchful eye of Rosa, who swears at anything that moves (if she is not already beating it with her wooden spoon), and Hans, a gentle, accordion-playing giant, who will soon come to be known as Papa.
For a nine-year-old, life rarely extends beyond the nucleus of your own troubles – in Liesel’s case, these constitute as learning to read in order to move out of the infant class at school she’s been relegated to, playing football with the other kids on the street, scouring the pavement for pennies with her neighbour Rudy so they can buy lollypops. But in Nazi Germany, the changing world around her is very much something she will be forced to take notice of, that demands immediate attention.
This comes in the form of a young Jewish man named Max Vandenburg, who appears in the Hubermann’s kitchen seeking help. He has nowhere to go, has left his family behind, and being found by the Nazis will surely mean an eventual if not immediate death. The Hubermanns make a decision: to take Max in, care for and feed him, despite the repercussions they’ll face if he’s found. An unlikely friendship is struck up between the nine-year-old, German Liesel and the displaced, Jewish Max, and they will soon discover they have much more in common than they’d ever imagined.
Zusak has previously said that The Book Thief (2007) did not come together until he realised it ought to be narrated by Death himself. The story opens as Death describes the collecting of souls, how he roams the earth gathering them one by one. It is this omniscient perspective that brings the story to life, as Death returns to Liesel’s life on Himmel Strasse at various points throughout her adolescence as she grows up during the war.
Not only is The Book Thief as moving and harrowing as you’d expect an account of WWII to be, it is surprising in its ambition and originality. Whilst we see Nazis vilified, we also see the bravery of Germans who will stand up for what they believe in, and that is not a side of the tale that is often told. And undoubtedly the star of the novel is a character named Rudy Steiner. Liesel’s neighbour, he spends large portions of the novel trying to win a kiss from her. He once painted himself with charcoal and ran the 100m track race in the dead of night to emulate his idol, the black athlete Jesse Owens. You can imagine how that went down in Nazi Germany.
This is a book about war and suffering, and the random and unjust nature of fate. But it is also about hope and goodness. Wartime tales are nothing new, but told through the eyes of Death himself, and in Zusak’s unique prose, this is certainly not a novel to miss.