Book of a lifetime: The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak

 

I've given a lot of thought to books that hold a significant meaning for me; the books that have stayed with me long after the final page has been turned. There are many books that have shaped me. To select one feels like an impossible task, like choosing between salade niçoise and buttery mashed potatoes. I love both at different times of the year.

I now realise that the books I love and cherish are not special solely due to their spellbinding stories, effortlessly told and brilliantly crafted, but because of the people I associate with them. When I think of Little Women, I not only picture the four sisters ensconced in Orchard House on a quest for self-fulfilment and true love, but also my mum, her knees bunched up under her chin, reading to my ten-year-old self from the end of my bed. I lay in a curled ball, unwilling to move in case she sensed my discomfort and stopped reading.

Captain Corelli's Mandolin was thrust into my hands by a stranger in a hot country, who as she boarded a bus sought out a face in a crowd to whom she could entrust this gift of escape. "You have to read this!" she whispered, and was gone. I've silently thanked her countless times for choosing me.

The book I have settled upon is Markus Zusak's The Book Thief. I opened it nonchalantly, daring him to show me something new and riveting about Nazi rule in Germany; surely it had all been said? No, it hadn't. Zusak whisked me off the sofa and plonked me on the fear-ridden cobbles of Molching in the early 1940s. I read it non-stop and felt the cramp in my stomach from the tense, gut-wrenching fear of anticipation on every page. I willed Liesl Meminger to succeed and extended love and gratitude to Hans Hubermann, who became the very best man he could be in the most horrific of circumstances. It was as if Zusak placed a picture I was familiar with in front of me, but adjusted the view-finder, making that image sharper, clearer and more striking. He changed my perspective on a period of history about which I thought I knew a lot.

My husband had read the book before leaving for deployment in Iraq. My joy and commitment to the text was heightened by the knowledge that his eyes had danced over the same words and the cover had rested inside his palm, now so far away. It added poignancy; he was away engaged in battle, while I read of the horrors of another...

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