Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief was one of the literary successes of last year in the UK, although it was first published in Australia a couple of years ago. It was one of those books that was always being heavily promoted by the large book shop chains and the front cover boldly declares it as a No.1 Bestseller. I normally approach such books with a certain degree of caution, as I am deeply uncomfortable with the way that the large book shops come to financial deals with publishers to promote certain books and heavily discount them, which in turn influences our reading habits. I’m also not wont to quoting from the Daily Telegraph, but in this case I find myself in complete agreement with the quoted critic on the back cover who claims that this book is ‘extraordinary, resonant, beautiful and angry.’
The story is set in Germany during the Third Reich and specifically during the war years and concerns the story of a young girl, taken away from her communist parents and placed in the foster care of a working-clas family on the outskirts of Munich. The political background to the story is, of course, vital and it is a book that on one level is full of despair. Yet it is also a hopeful book. Against the political story, another story unfolds: that of a young illiterate girl who steals books and learns to read and write. Books (and the library she breaks into) are both her refuge and her way of understanding her reality. In contrast to the dehumanisation of society by the Nazis, literature exists as a humanising force. The girl is given a notebook as a present in which she begins to write her story, thus taking control of her own destiny and identity and becoming the storyteller of her own life.
This is a deceptively rich book that is simultaneously deeply tragic and life-affirming.