Amazing, awesome, utterly breathtaking book. The Book Thief is marketed as young adult fiction, but both the subject matter and the writing style require a lot of maturity from a young reader, and there’s certainly nothing to stop an adult from getting completely caught up in this novel.
It’s set in Germany during World War Two (another unintentional entry in my “different perspectives on the Second World War” series I’ve been accidentally reading this year). The main character is Liesl, a young German girl who is placed with a foster family after losing her own parents and younger brother. Liesl’s foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, at first appear to be quite unremarkable people, but as the story unfolds they become involved in that most remarkable and risky of all activities — hiding a fugitive Jew in their basement.
Against this background, Liesl grows from a frightened young girl into a teenager who finds strength and nourishment from books — including the ones she steals — and from the people she loves. The only person she can trust at first is her gentle foster father, Hans, but eventually her circle widens to include her sharp-tongued foster mother, the boy down the road who is always begging her for a kiss, the mayor’s reclusive wife who allows Liesl to read, and later steal, books from her library, and the frightened young Jewish man hidden in the basement.
All the characters in this novel are an absolute delight, written with such subtlety and skill, their characters unfolding like flower petals opening, revealing unguessed facets of their personalities. The perspective of life in wartime Germany, in a country ruled by a Fuhrer who is revered by some, despised by others, but feared by all, and the suffering of ordinary Germans under allied bombing attacks, all provide a point of view on the war that those of us in English-speaking countries don’t read enough of.
Speaking of point of view, the narrative point of view in this novel is unique indeed, and took me a few pages to get used to. The story is told in first person, not by one of the characters but by … Death. That’s right, the Grim Reaper (although Death assures us he doesn’t carry a scythe). This allows for an omniscient narration that brings us right into some of the darkest moments of the war, and provided a very weepy ending for at least one reader.
Heartbreaking, beautiful, hopeful and exhilarating, The Book Thief is a testament to the power of words and of the human spirit. I highly recommend it.