Christine Strelan - Between the Covers

The Book Thief

Markus Zusak

Picador 2005

Germany under the Nazis was a terrible place to be Jewish. It was almost as bad for Germans with integrity. Australian author Zusaks excellent novel tells the story of an ordinary German family who choose to retain their decency: Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it 24 hours a day. That was the business of hiding a Jew.

In 1939, Liesel Meminger is nine years old and alone in the world. Sent to live with foster parents, she is at first withdrawn and traumatised. Her foster father Hans begins the slow process of earning her trust, while his wife Rosa tries to nag the girl into shape. Learning to read expands Liesels perception of the world dramatically. Enchanted by the power of words, she becomes a book thief, even stealing a charred volume from the remains of a Nazi book burning. Zusak explores the potency of language for both good and evil, how the same thing could be so damning and brilliant. Hitlers cunning propaganda manipulates words, infecting peoples minds with hatred. Liesel combats this by using words to make powerful connections between individuals. A young Jewish man is hidden in her basement. She brightens his existence simply by describing each days sky: ...a single giant cloud came over the hills like a white monster. It climbed the mountains. The sun was eclipsed and in its place a white beast with a grey heart watched the town.

The Book Thiefs narrator is Death, and he is an inventive, poetic storyteller. He says of war, Ive seen so many young men over the years who think theyre running at other young men. They are not. Theyre running at me. Most of the time he concentrates on the characters lives, and we forget who is doing the talking.

Zusaks novel is heartbreaking in places (I cried. Yes, its that good), but its ultimate message is one of faith in human decency. Faced with evil governments, we are never as powerless as we might think. There is always a choice. Fascism: Just Say No.

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.

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