The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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The Independent Culture

How do you write a fresh story about the Holocaust? Australian novelist Markus Zusak has cracked it with The Book Thief, which sailed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Here The Book Thief is being published simultaneously for both teenage readers and for adults, and a Hollywood weepie is on the cards.

Like other fiction which has successfully crossed the divide, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, this is essentially a book for the young that adults might also enjoy. While ambitious and knowingly post-modern - it includes typographical symbols, illustrations and handwritten passages - The Book Thief has an innocent sensibility. There are no hidden depths. It wears its heart on its sleeve, which feels entirely appropriate for a novel about a child.

In 1939, nine-year-old Liesel is being taken to live with foster parents in Molching, a town outside Munich on the road to Dachau. All we know about Liesel's parents is that they are communists. Within pages, Liesel's small brother dies on the train journey and Liesel is cast as a survivor, "an expert at being left behind".

A plucky heroine who sometimes steals and lies, Liesel soon settles into life on the ironically named Himmel (Heaven) Street. In this poor district, the kids play soccer, drill in the Hitler Youth and receive daily drubbings from parents, teachers and each other. The relationships are well drawn, from Liesel's friendship with lemon-haired Rudy who idolises the black athlete, Jesse Owens, to that with her foster parents, the Hubermanns. Built like a small wardrobe, harridan Rosa takes in washing for local residents. Her husband, Hans, is a housepainter who comforts Liesel through her nightmares and shows her how to roll cigarettes.

Zusak gives us all you would expect in a novel about wartime Germany: hungry children pinching food, book burnings and bombing attacks. But his trick is to make Death his narrator. Not a million miles from Terry Pratchett's Grim Reaper in the Discworld series, Death is wry, tender - and overworked. War, he complains, is like having a new boss who expects the impossible, constantly nagging "Get it done, get it done." In 1942, he can hardly keep up. "Forget the scythe, God damn it, I needed a broom or a mop."

But Death has a heart and is haunted by the terrible things humans do. "For me, the sky was the colour of Jews," he says. No point in seeking explanations. "God never says anything. You think you're the only one he never answers?" By having Death commenting on the action and offering pithy asides, this Holocaust story becomes everyone's story. This isn't just about them. It's about us. And in case we don't get it, Death reminds us in the very first paragraph:


You are going to die."

Initially Death notices Liesel when he comes for her brother. And it's at her brother's burial that the girl first steals - a gravedigger's handbook dropped in the snow. Although she cannot read, the book represents Liesel's last connection with the sibling and mother she will never see again. Using this manual the gentle Hans teaches Liesel to read.

Ten books make up Liesel's story and all mark important moments. Liesel saves one volume from the smoking remains at a public book burning and steals others from the personal library of the Mayor's wife - a withdrawn woman still mourning her dead son. Mein Kampf plays an unlikely role helping a young Jew in his struggle to survive. Max arrives at the Hubermanns' bearing the tome and is hidden in their basement for two years. The last of all the books is the one 14-year-old Liesel is writing about herself on the fateful night of the final air raid.

In Hitler's Germany, Liesel comes to understand the power of words. Being able to read them empowers her, but it empowers others, too. "Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly [sic] tricks to make us feel better. What good were the words?"

The Book Thief is full of visually strong moments: a snowball fight in the basement, the young Jew's fantasy boxing match with Hitler; the literal whitewashing of a "bad" book (Mein Kampf) into a good one (painting over the pages to write a new story for Liesel). But it could be much tighter. While some images are spot on (the dying Max: "The colder he became, the more he melted"), some struggle too hard to be profound and end up meaningless ("a septic truth bleeds towards clarity").

This is a moving work which will make many eyes brim. Zusak shows us how small defiances and unexpectedly courageous acts remind us of our humanity. It isn't only Death who is touched. Liesel steals our hearts too.