A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
A lot of books are described as “unique” and aren’t. This one really is. For one thing, it’s narrated by Death, who isn’t spooky at all, but rather a courtly gentleman, with good manners and a sense of humor. He is related more to the boatman who ferries souls across the River Styx than the Grim Reaper. And he has a strong sense of color, which infuses the book, and not just the color of buildings or clothes, but of the atmosphere and mood. It’s very much how I see things, in the way that color dominates my vision.
Set in the years of WW2, an orphaned little girl, Liesel, is taken to foster parents, the Hubermanns, a middle-aged couple in a small German town. The wife, Rosa, is all loud bluster, but the husband, Hans, is a soft spoken house painter who plays the accordion. Liesel has difficulty settling in at school, partly because she doesn’t really know how to read. Hans slowly teaches her and in doing so, they form a wonderful bond. A schoolmate, Rudy, takes Liesel under his wing and the adventures they have together, some of them harrowing, build a strong, and often teasing, friendship. As Lisle gradually fits into her new life, a young Jewish man unexpectedly shows up at the Hubermann’s door one night and to fulfill a promise, is hidden in the basement. How the rest of the story plays out is one of tragedy and love, described in prose that is unexpectedly beautiful and full of tenderness and twists.
The book is also a vivid portrayal of how ordinary citizens lived during the terror of the Nazis and the choices made and how that affected them. How decent people tried to hold onto their humanity with small acts of kindness. The reader acutely feels the winter cold and food shortages, along with the drastic changes and uncertainty the ongoing war brings.
The writing has an unusual rhythm. There are many asides, with lists, definitions and background comments that one would think would interrupt the flow, but instead amplifies the story. Sometimes a character is followed to the end of their journey before winding back to the main narrative. Not everything is explained, which normally frustrates me, but here, made it more realistic. Even the page numbers are in an archaic style, adding to the atmosphere. There is subtle symbolism, which isn’t really noticed until one is done reading. For instance, books to Liesel mean a connection to a person, as well as prized objects themselves, so the title has multiple meanings.
I’ve now read the book twice, but I haven’t seen the film and am not sure I want to. I watched the trailer online after finishing the book the second time and some of the casting seems too different from how I imagined the characters. Hopefully, those seeing the film first will be encouraged to read the book, because it’s certainly an excellent reading experience; powerful and heartbreaking.
Borzoi Books 2005 552 pp. ISBN 0-375-93100-7