Last month saw the first meeting of a brand shiny new book club. It started off the back of the ‘Smut Party’ writing club that we did a while back – we decided we enjoyed getting together and being nerdy but writing isn’t something all of us do regularly, unlike reading.
The book we read in October was The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak and I really… enjoyed? it. (I’m not sure ‘enjoyed’ is quite the right word.) This feeling was mostly echoed throughout the book club although not everyone agreed or even finished it. That’s the great thing about book clubs, lots of people read the same book but not everyone feels the same about it. I love it when somebody loves a book I hate or vice-versa, it opens up great discussion and so often makes you think about things you hadn’t previously considered.
Set in a little town in Germany during WWII and written from the view-point of Death, The Book Thief wasn’t like anything I had read before.
It took a while to get used to Death’s narrative voice – at first it seemed pretentious and annoying but after about four pages it suddenly clicked. If the character speaking had been a person, I’d have hated them – but because it was Death, and Death is almost a deity in many ways, the voice worked.
Indeed, by the end of the book I was in love with the narrative style. I loved how Death wasn’t a completely cold character, void of empathy. I loved that even Death understood the pointlessness and stupidity of human warfare and loss, how Death got tired of having to collect the souls of people who died for needless reasons. I adored the constant use of colour to describe everything, it brought such powerful imagery to the story and certain moments have lingered with me ever since.
By the time I was finished, the sky was yellow, like burning newspaper… How I’d have loved to pull it all down, to screw up the newspaper sky and toss it away.
One thing that surprised me when I started reading The Book Thief was how it told you the ending, and much of what happened in the middle, right at the very start. In the first couple of pages, even. I thought, at first, that this was stupid and would ruin the book – I’m not a ‘read the end first’ kind of person. If I do that, then I feel like there is no point in reading the book because all the suspense and tension is broken.
It turned out that in this case, that wasn’t true. The Book Thief is less about the ending of the story – which, with Death as the narrator, was inevitably not going to be an overly happy one – and more about the journey of the characters and the development of the war on the way to the ending. Also, knowing the ending meant that there was a nervous anticipation running through you as you read the story, waiting for things to happen but not knowing exactly when they would come.
It made scenes that should have been happy or funny be tinged with a sadness that wouldn’t have otherwise been there and emphasised the pointlessness of war. There was more than one point where a particularly joyous or funny moment made me cry at the hopelessness of it all (I can’t lie, I spent a good third of this book crying. A fair portion of that on a train, much to the horror of the guy opposite me who didn’t know whether he should be saying something to comfort me or not.)
The main character that Death follows through the story, Leisel, actually wasn’t much of a character in herself. I don’t remember much about her now particularly, but she was the key to the story – the link between all the other characters that held them all together.
All the other characters though, were brilliant. From Leisel’s cheeky, funny best friend Rudy, through to the strict, scary Nazi sweet shop owner – they were all heartbreakingly human. They were flawed and they were perfect all at once, just like people you would expect to meet in any small town in any country.
I loved how it was set in Germany itself – so many WWII stories are set in the UK or other nations that were invaded by Germany – but The Book Thief showed how the war was just as terrible for the Germans too. How not everybody there was a crazy, evil Nazi that hated Jews – how many people hated Hitler and his regime just as much as the rest of the world but had to pretend to agree with him in order to protect their families. How Hitler’s regime destroyed friendships and families and how it brought other people together in love and hope as they tried to stand against it in their own small ways. Tiny acts of kindness were harshly punished but they persevered because they didn’t want to see hate win and take over their homeland.
The fear of hiding a Jew in the basement and the feelings of the people hiding themselves were beautifully brought to light. I loved seeing both sides of that story – the feelings of fear and responsibility for the family and the feelings of guilt and fear of Max, the Jew in the basement. You so often only hear one side in a book.
The Book Thief is quite long and it wasn’t the easiest book to read and wasn’t without flaws but overall it is one of the best books I think I have ever read. It is well worth picking up some time if you haven’t read it already.
Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up each soul that day as if they were newly born. I even kissed a few weary, poisoned cheeks. I listened to their last, gasping cries. Their vanishing words. I watched their love visions and freed them from their fear.
They were French, they were Jews, and they were you.