The thief in the night

I love reading. Yes - you say - that's fairly obvious, why else would you be writing a book blog? However in spite of my love of  literature, I don't usually get that emotional about it. In my 40+ years of reading there have been quite a number of books that have made me laugh out loud, only a few that have genuinely shocked me, and I can count on the fingers of one hand (not including the thumb) those that have made me cry.

So you will know straight away that Marcus Zusak's The Book Thief had quite an effect on me, when I tell you that I sobbed unrestrainedly throughout the last chapter. It is, without doubt, one of the most powerful books that I've ever read. It is quite simply stunning. And for what should be quite grisly subject matter, it also manages to be life-affirming. No small feat.

The novel has a rather medieval feel to it. Narrated by Death, it could be set during almost any conflict - it is both universal and particular. Young Liesel Meminger is fostered by rough and ready, but kind hearted Hans and Rosa Hubermann. In spite of the darkness growing around them as Hitler rises to power and Germany goes to war, Liesel leads a surprisingly happy life surrounded by love and music, with good friends, and a growing attachment to the printed and written word. Life becomes much more dangerous however when Hans keeps a promise to an old friend...

When I read Reading Lolita in Tehran earlier this year, there was one idea in there that really stuck in my mind. The idea that fiction opens you to experiences in other times, other places, in a way in which, however good it may be, non-fiction can't. The book thief reinforces this thought. It guides you through day-to-day life in Hitler's Germany in a way that non-fiction just can't do - witness my thoughts on the Bonhoeffer letters, for instance.

This is an extraordinary book: sad, funny, compulsively readable, never sentimental, but always human. The clever use of Death as a narrator enables the author to give an overview of events and to personalise them; while Death itself is both the Death Triumphant of European art, and a much tenderer voice both omniscient and inevitable. Death may come to all, but it is certainly not triumphant in any sense in this radiant novel. In spite of the inhumanity which darkens these pages, in the end it is the best of the human spirit which shines through.


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