A hauntingly beautiful read

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Reading a book is quite an immersive experience. You form emotional connections with the characters, you learn to relate, to love, to hate, to understand characters, and as the story progresses you form the story into a movie in your mind’s cinema with either you playing one of the characters or just being there as a non-attending third party, merely observing as the events unfold.

Regardless of the genre, this is true to any sort of book. We love to create our own version of ‘movies’ of the book in our minds, mainly because books and movies share one similarity; they both have a beginning, a build-up and an end. Granted in some cases the number of characters might create a different number of sub-plots and quite a few plot twists along the way but in a nutshell, this is common to all books. The story usually keeps you hooked to the story, glued to the pages as the grand plot unfolds, reaching towards that grand finale sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter. Rarely, however you get books that strays from this common unspoken rule and sort of gives away the plot of the book at the very beginning. The book I’m about to talk of, followes that formula and gives away what happens in the end before the book even begins.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak happened to catch my eye while I was browsing Amazon rather lazily looking for books to buy. When I came across Zusak’s masterpiece, at first it didn’t tick the usual checkboxes I look in a book such as mystery, thriller, crime, fantasy, horror and so on but purely going by the good reviews it had garnered, I decided to put the book in by cart and boy am I glad I did so. 

Let me give you a brief synopsis of the book. The story takes place in the Nazi Germany during the World War II. In 1939, little Liesel Meminger is put under the care of foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann who are kind and considerate. As it is the running theme during the time of a war, Liesel’s life is filled with death and despair. She loses her little brother and gets estranged from her family which is why she is put under foster care. As Liesel settles in with Hubermanns she begins to read, courtesy Hans who teaches her to read. In fact, one of the first books she gets her hands on is a grave digger’s manual she finds by her brother’s graveside. This is the first book she steals. Liesel helps out her foster mother in the laundry business and encounters Ilsa Hermann – the town’s mayor’s wife. She is kind enough to let Liesel borrow books from her library from which Liesel steals.

Hans harbours a dangerous secret – he provides lodge to a Jew in his basement named Max Vandenberg. Max shares Liesel’s hobby of reading and fascination with books, and presents her with a sketchbook that contains his life story, which prompts Liesel to note down her own. Her best friend is the neighbour boy Rudy Steiner with bony legs, blue eyes and blond hair who has a knack for getting into tricky situations he really shouldn’t. He idolises Jesse Owens (the African-American athlete who was credited with single-handedly crushing Hitler’s myth of ‘Aryan supremacy’) and in fact one night, he colours himself black with charcoal and runs 100 metres in the local track field.

Above all these interesting characters and their stories is the love Liesel possesses for reading and writing. At a time like the ‘30s, when the Nazis were literally hunting for books and burning them, Liesel went to lengths to save books, sometimes resorted to stealing. With constant bombing and Nazi raids happening all around, this book is filled with death and despair, not an ideal setting for a story with an unusual fascination of books.

In fact, this book, although is about a young girl, isn’t by any means a children’s book. It is for a mature audience and by and large discuses deep themes such as mortality and the cruelty of war. Death and genocide is an omnipresent theme in the book so yes, it is a sad book but what makes it unique and interesting is not the fact that it is a tearjerker. It is the fact that it sort of gives away the ending at the very beginning but still compels you to read the whole book knowing fully well what is going to happen. How do I know this, because the back of the book says so. It says the book is narrated by the Death.

Death, the Angel of Death or the Grimm Reaper is so busy during the Nazi Germany since there is so much death taking place. He has a lot of souls to escort to the afterlife and that is how he encounters Liesel. Although he only meets Liesel three times, the last time being her death, Death knows the life if Liesel enough to narrate it in a book as he gets his hand on the diary or the manuscript Liesel has written.

Since it is Death who is narrating the whole story and that we are exposed to the fact that Death visits Leisel – a.k.a. the book thief – we know for a fact that she, at the end of the book, dies. In terms of spoiling the ending this is the ultimate spoiler but the way the book is written is so lyrical that it compels to read the book even knowing fully well what sort of an outcome to expect.

In a way, The Book Thief is a celebration of life narrated by Death while taking place among death. The death and loses of loved ones during wartime is a commonplace the book sort of normalises it and implores that when at war, priorities change. However, it also shows that love, friendship, and compassion towards one another can also sprout from within a setting that is plagued by sorrow and the darkness of war.

The book has been made into a movie as well and quite predictably, the 2013 drama/war movie went on to gather quite the critical acclaim since it was based on a quite strong adopted screenplay but I’d suggest you give the book a go first before watching the movie because that way, you will be able to create your own cinematic version of the book. You will be able to immerse yourself with the characters like I did and truly enjoy the book as you read. You’ll laugh, weep, sigh and at times will find yourself being unable to continue reading fearing what horrors await you on the other page. But you will continue reading nonetheless because the early emotional connection the writer so cunningly and effortlessly makes between you and Leisel with his use of words is so strong. You will read The Book Thief until the last page attentively and I will assure you that the characters and the impressions they have made within you will last for years to come.    

The Book Thief is hauntingly beautiful, intricately woven, and masterfully narrated. Even knowing the ultimate ending I found myself reading through the pages with blurry eyes filled with tears. When Death finally visits Leisel to claim her soul will it be an untimely death depicting the brutality and cruelty of war or will it be a death of a survivor? Well, I suggest you give The Book Thief a try to find out for yourself. 

Upon their third and final meet when Death comes to collect Liesel’s soul, he gives the diary back to her which she had lost in a bombing. Liesel asks Death whether he could understand what he had read to which Death couldn’t come up with a comprehensive answer.

“I wanted to tell the book thief so many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I’m constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race – that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words so damning and so brilliant. None of those things however came out of my mouth. All I was able to do was to turn to Liesel Meminger and tell her the only truth I truly know. I said it to the book thief and I say it now to you. ‘I am haunted by humans’.”  

By Sanuj Hathurusinghe