Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Book Thief

The Book Thief
Markus Zusak
London, Black Swan, 2007, 552p

Words can be incredibly powerful, but often they are wasted. It is a rare thing when a book really draws on the power of words, and creates something wonderful. 

In The Book Thief, Death narrates the story of Liesel, a young girl with a habit of stealing books. It all begins on the day of her brother's death, as Death collects the young boy's soul, and Liesel steals a handbook dropped by a gravedigger. In Nazi Germany, Death is kept busy by the product of war, whilst Liesel learns the power of words. 

Few books are as beautifully written as this. Zusak is like a poet, offering language in a way it is never used. He has such a unique way of looking at the world. Colour and meaning is everywhere; one of my favourite lines describes
"Rain like grey pencil shavings."
It is incredible how such a tragic setting lends itself to such awe-inspiring imagery. Zusak does not sugar-coat the Second World War. Sometimes, the darkest subjects produce the brightest inspiration. As narrator, Death details the pain and suffering, the loss and anger; but he parallels it with the kindness of humanity. People come together to do great things, from the smallest acts of good will to the bravest of self-sacrifices. In this novel, Death is not dark or evil. He does not carry a scythe. He recognises the light within mankind. He admires it. 

Words are an important motif throughout this novel. Zusak uses language in the most original way to articulate this story. But also, words are a source of power for the characters. The F├╝hrer uses words to gain power over the German people; Liesel uses words to overcome her nightmares, reading books through the night; and Max uses words to share his story. Death offers meaning to the reader, by translating German phrases, giving definitions of difficult words, and using metaphors and similes to bring to life a little street in the poor part of Munich. 

Liesel's love of words is infections. For me, the benefits of reading are obvious - so much so, I sometimes find it difficult to articulate. This book perfectly demonstrates the importance of words - we too easily and too often take them for granted, but we must remember that words give us power.

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