"This is the tale of the book thief, as narrated by Death. And when Death tells a story, you really have to listen."
The first fictional book that I read in 2014 was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and what a choice I made! I don't own this particular cover (I have an alternative one, thankfully not promoting the movie) but I think this was the original cover when it was published in 2006.
Set in Molching during the Second World War under Hitler's reign, the proverbial 'book thief' is a nine year old girl called Liesel Meminger who is first seen by Death in 1939, travelling on a train to Munich. Her six year old brother, Werner, dies before her very eyes, and Death takes his soul in his arms. She first claims the name from Death when she attends her brother's funeral by the railway, and she sees a gravedigger's handbook buried in the snow. Taking it as a reminder of her brother, she develops a taste for words over time, and even more of a taste for stealing them.
Leisel's mother took them on the train because she was handing them over to foster parents in Molching - Rosa and Hans Hubermann. When she is transported to Himmel Street (translation: Heaven Street) she struggles to get to grips with her new life without her family, as well as coping with the effects of her brother's death, which comes back to haunt her in nightmares. She soon settles in her new home though, when she sees Hans' silver eyes and kind smile. He has an accordian and isn't very good with words, but vows to teach Liesel because she struggles with her German at first. And let's not forget Rudy Steiner, who becomes Liesel's best friend and partner in crime.
What can I say about this book? I fell in love with every word, as did Liesel.
I had no idea what this book was about, and I only own it because it was a spur of the moment add-on to my Christmas list. I had heard things about it and read really good reviews, so I thought I would give it a try. I thought I was going to be confused throughout the story, so I even started writing things on sticky notes in case I needed to rewind before I carried on, but I was being way too cautious because as soon as I opened the book I understood what was going on. Markus paints such an unusual picture of Germany - particularly focusing on the beauty of the sky - and I think it really worked for this book. The words were profound and true to the core... I found the narrative very philosophic. I was happy about this, because I have been looking for a book to suggest to my philosophy teacher, and this seems like the perfect one.
Some people might say that the 584 page novel is a bit heavy for this kind of book. With such a sensitive subject (the War and death in general) some people might think that it should have been shorter, but I disagree entirely. It was a perfect length for the content that you get out of it, and about halfway through there are about 13 pages of purely drawings made by Max (you will come to know him later in the book but he is a big spoiler) so you get a bit of a rest halfway through it. I especially liked how raw it was to the reality of the war, and Liesel was a very strong character who was clearly effected by past events (unlike some... *cough cough* HARRY POTTER *cough cough*) which was a realistic representation of a girl who would have gone through that type of trauma at an early age. I think the book would have made a huge mistake if Liesel wasn't as flawed as she was.
Death narrates the book, and this is what I found the most interesting of all. Zusak doesn't describe the features of Death, nor the gender (although I internally read it as being a male) and it turns out that Death has a heart. You never think of Death as being sentient or having any compassion for human beings, but Markus literally beings Death to life. There are some cracking quotes to be acknowledged:
"No-one's urine smells as good as your own." - page 228
"Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day. That was the business of hiding a Jew." - page 229
"I can promise you that the world is a factory. The sun stirs it, the humans rule it. And I remain. I carry them away." - page 577
And the one that made me think of the internet meme Doge:
"There is much story." - page 263
Death needs a spoiler alert sign, because he/she gives away the whole book at random intervals! Some people would question the point in carrying on reading, because Death tells you what happens chapters before it even happens, but I didn't mind. That was the way the book was supposed to be. Death was trying to make the point that everyone dies eventually, so it doesn't matter when it happens. This was a controversial element to the book but it is easy to look past because of the content being so damn good.
I especially loved the educational vibe to it. I learnt some German along the way, as all German words were given the translation (and you didn't even have to look at any footnotes because they each character just said the same word twice, but once in German and once with the English translation) and it reminded me of my GCSE history days. It mentioned the events such as "The night of the long knives" and "Stalingrad" and I was glad of my history education. Although it did explain each event in detail as it went along, it was far more satisfying knowing what the heck was going on before Death had to explain.
Overall, it was an absolutely incredible start to my 2014 reading list, and I gave it 5/5 cups of British tea. This book had everything you could have wanted in a story, and the metaphors just blew me away. Fantastic imagery too! I could imagine walking down Himmel Street as if I was actually there.