The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

The importance of words in a situation so dire, it almost beggars description
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The Independent Culture

Advance hype claiming "Anne Frank" status for this latest "crossover" title for young, and other, adults made me feel mulishly biased against it. Discovering that it was narrated by a personification of Death disconcertingly similar to Terry Pratchett's world-weary but discerning Reaper Man, and written in a mannered way, did not encourage either.

The Book Thief is punctuated with wisecrack asides, translations of colloquial German words, and cryptic forecasts of the action ("a girl made of darkness - the joy of cigarettes - a town walker - some dead letters - Hitler's birthday"). But after a while, I tuned in to Markus Zusak's eccentric but lively style, and became caught up in the swing of the story.

Liesel Meminger is nine in 1939, wounded in spirit by the death of her six-year-old brother on the freezing train journey to foster parents in a village near Munich. While he is being buried, she pockets a book dropped by a grave-digger: a sexton's handbook that she cannot yet read, but that will be the first of a series of literary acquisitions, her props and mainstays during the nightmare of the five years to follow.

Words are the nub of the matter, believes the Australian-born Zusak. His parents lived through the same deprivation, bullying and unpredictable fiats from the Führer that make this tale such a gripping roller-coaster ride of fear and courage, cruelty and generosity. Words twisted the truth about Nazi Germany into a source of fierce pride for many. Ultimately, words helped defeat it.

Zusak is perhaps too in love with his own eloquence, but he conjures up unforgettable images. The Jewish Max, hidden, like an unexploded bomb, in Liesel's basement, imagines smashing the Führer to a pulp in a boxing ring; he turns a copy of Mein Kampf, by the whitewashing and rewriting of every page, into an inspirational parable of the human spirit. Liesel's ally Rudy runs a race furiously, lengthening his lead "like a stretch of rope" to insult his hated Hitler Youth commander. And Liesel herself braves the whips and punches of soldiers to give bread to the Jews marching through the village in starving procession to Dachau.

Towards the unguessable, but nicely just, end of this story, Death says, "I'm always finding human beings at their best and worst. I see their ugliness and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both". Zusak succeeds in finding diamonds among the ashes, balancing despair with hope and endurance.

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