I met Kelly Slater in the water once.
I giggled, stole little bird-like glances, and couldn't catch a wave until he paddled in. It was disgraceful. You may well see that same level of fanboy emerge here. The Book Thief is one of the few books I've read where each sentence feels like it has been crafted and painstakingly shaped until it's perfect; Where the imagery in the prose is so beautiful, it elicits an audible groan I usually reserve for POV shots from Skeleton Bay.
Set in 1940s Germany, the tale is told by Death, who is tired and jaded from the recent spike in his workload. And his story focuses on a young girl, named Liesel who revels in the freedom of books & literature in a society which preferred books when they were on fire. The strange thing is, that plot probably doesn't grab you... and I'm not sure it's supposed to. Death tells you who dies and outlines the plot in the first chapter:
• A girl
• Some words
• An accordionist
• Some fanatical Germans
• A Jewish fist fighter
• And quite a lot of thievery
It's the reason the movie is good, but not phenomenal. The appeal lies somewhere else. The true beauty (as it is for Liesel) is in the words on each page. It's the Skeleton Bay of prose: A thing of beauty which unfolds down the line, and never seems to close out. This imagery gives Liesel and Rudy an almost transcendental quality, as though there is a quiet depth and nobility to their actions. 584 pages later, they feel like idealised children versions of who you wish you would have been if you had been alive during WW2. They are flawed humans; Rudy, self sabotaging, and Liesel stubborn and volatile. And yet, they feel like your friends, and it remains the only novel to have brought me to tears. This is more impressive when you consider that the ending is spelled out midway through the book.
Perhaps the most admirable aspect of the book is the way that Zusak manages to explore how humans are capable of both extreme selflessness, love and beauty, as well as hatred, murder and genocide. Death's sign off on the final page:
'A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR:
I am haunted by humans'
And it's up to you what he means by 'haunted'. Is it the memory of love and sacrifice which never leaves him? Or, is it the atrocities of the Holocaust, when "the sky was the colour of Jews". Think on that metaphor for long enough, and you will eventually be brought to the crematorium and smokestacks of Birkenau and Auschwitz. Before I arrived in Poland, I wondered if there would be some kind of "spiritual heaviness" about the place, something grotesque. But the barracks sit on green grass, hemmed in by thick green Polish forests. There is something strangely beautiful about it, if you are able to momentarily forget where you are.
Beautiful and grotesque.
And we find ourselves at the same conclusion that Zusak reaches about humanity.
It's little wonder Death is haunted...
So get yourself to Deutschland unt Polska, and bring Zusak along for the ride.
"The words were on their way, and when they arrived, she would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain."