I honestly thought I’d read enough fiction set during World War II for a lifetime already (yes, despite being 24 – I read quite a few books in my early teens, mmkay?), and therefore I wasn’t entirely looking forward to reading The Book Thief. But I read good review after good review, and then it was one of the books on the Book Bloggers’ Recommendation Challenge list last year. So it ended up being my last book of 2011, and what a book to end on.
The Book Thief is about a nine-year-old German girl called Liesel who goes to live with foster parents after the Nazis take power, her parents being communists. The foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, a couple whose own children have grown up and moved away, live on Himmel Street, one of the poor parts of Molching, a place filled with colourful but still sympathetic characters. There are a few twists: one, the narrator of the story is Death, who warns the reader in the very first chapter that he will see the book thief three times, two, Death has a habit of ‘spoiling’ bits of the story, and three: Liesel has a habit of stealing (sort of) books.
The setting and the culture are described with just the right amount of detail. The information given is never superfluous, and I think that’s because Liesel is the focus of the story. We know what is relevant to her life and to the lives of her friends, and nothing more. Almost everything that she wouldn’t understand until she is older is left out. Instead the many pages of The Book Thief – 554 in my copy – are devoted to characterisation, to building and shaping and growing the characters, to developing their histories.
I hadn’t actually read a novel that looked at life from the point of view of ordinary German citizens during the war before. All the others I’ve read were about Jewish people trying to escape the Nazis, and/or British soldiers or civilians. It was really interesting to read a book set ‘on the other side’ as it were, especially as Death, as the narrator, is brutally impartial. It was also interesting to read a book where the narrator referred to events well in advance of them actually being entirely described. It reminds me of Brecht’s suggestion that actors summarise events before they are presented on stage, in order to remind the audience that they are watching a play and that the events are not inevitable. Yet even though you know what happens to Himmel Street from page 22, it’s still devastating when it does all come to an end. I sobbed over the last few pages, and then I smiled, because I had just finished reading a really good book.