And so, with cups of tea, the fancy brand name kind of cheese, a chocolate cake, a flan, Tim Tams and a big Boston bun, the first official meeting of the No Scrubs Book Club came to order.
While one member was too busy to actually start the book (‘Oh wow, it’s about Nazi Germany,’ she observed, scanning the Wikipedia plot summary on her iPhone ten seconds before we started) and three hadn’t actually finished yet (first book, busy time of year, large-ish page count – we don’t judge), feelings about the book were largely positive.
For those who haven’t come across this massively successful book by Australian author Markus Zusak (who slips a nice little nod to Australia at the end), The Book Thief follows four years in the life of Liesel Meminger during World War II. Willingly given up by her impoverished single mother (her husband a confirmed communist taken away by the Nazis), Liesel and her brother are taken by train to Molching. However, Liesel’s brother dies of ‘a cough that kills’ on the journey, and so Liesel has her first brush with Death and at the same time steals her first book.
In a bold move, Zusak has the novel narrated by Death: a dry, invisible but very busy entity who tells the story in retrospect via their own encounters with Liesel (of which there are three during Liesel’s lifetime) and from the memoir Death rescues from the back of a garbage truck.
No-one waved back.’
Death’s interest in Liesel’s ordeals during this short period is understandable. Liesel is a thoroughly likeable little girl who’s been through much in her short life – and she doesn’t take it lying down. Although she battles flashbacks of her brothers death every night, Liesel has a sharp tongue inherited from her foster mother (the fabulous, lovingly abrasive Rosa Hubermann) and a mean fist. While Liesel could be considered a vulnerable, and deeply empathetic character, she has no trouble looking after herself.
‘Her knuckles and fingernails were so frighteningly tough, despite their smallness. ‘You Saukerl!’ Her voice, too, was able to scratch him. ‘You Arschloch. Can you spell Arschloch for me?”
This sort of unusual coming of age story focuses on the two most important elements in Liesel’s life: her relationships with her loved ones, and her relationship with words.
It may be an indicator of a male author, but Liesel’s most important relationships are with the men in her life: Hans, the only father she’s ever known, Rudy, her best friend and first love, and Max, the young Jewish man her foster parents conceal in their basement. It could also be argued she has a strong relationship with Hitler and Death (who remains unmarked by gender indicators, though interestingly was perceived to be male by most of our book club – though Terry Prachett got the blame in at least two of those cases). Hitler, interestingly and appropriately enough, is a presence throughout the novel despite never physically appearing. Also interesting to note is that, even in Max and Liesel’s imaginations and despite their hatred of him, Hitler always wins.
It was universally agreed that Hans Hubermann was a wonderful person and father, interestingly drawn and with real human depth, and that Rudy was impossible not to love, for all his cheek and charm and kindheartedness. However, it came up that several of us had trouble really caring about Max as a person. While we could sympathise with him for his situation, and cared about his wellbeing for its effect on Liesel and Hans, it was difficult to associate ‘Max the Jew’ with ‘Max the Man’ – it seemed like he was a completely separate person to the man we’d been introduced to via his backstory. While it’s not something I felt personally (though I do believe he wasn’t as richly drawn as Hans or Rudy, but more like the lesser characters of Rosa or Ilsa), I can appreciate the observation. And maybe that was the point. It could be commentary on the dehumanisation of the Jews under the Third Reich. Nothing about Max in hiding was the same as Max the free man.
Liesel’s relationship with words is, to me, something special. Relevant to the backdrop, in a nation won over by poisoned words and whole classes of people oppressed by them, illiterate Liesel understands their power. Over the course of the four years, Liesel learns that words have the power to hurt and heal, using her own to wound when cornered, to distract others when hiding in the bomb shelter, and to bring pieces of the world to a man who doesn’t dare go out and see for himself.
”Don’t punish yourself,’ she heard her say again, but there would be punishment and pain, and there would be happiness, too. That was writing.’
For me, The Book Thief is a lovely story told through a unique lens. The language is beautiful, and Death’s observations on humankind are at once inspiring and heartbreaking. Liesel is a character I warm to and care for, and so are the people around her. Just like Death, I have a special place in my heart for people like her and Rudy.
‘I have hated the words,
and I have loved them,
and I hope I have made them right.’
The Book Thief gets a 4/5 from me, though according to my Goodreads list I gave it a 5/5 on my first reading. And I am quite annoyed the movie isn’t out in Australia until January.
Our next book will be Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Or is it Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close? I can never remember. It’s a surprise choice by a member who once gave me a copy of Marquis De Sade to read when we were teenagers (which was… scarring) and loves a good romance.
Until next time, happy reading!