Venue: White Swan Leeds
It’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. . . .
Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.
This is an unforgettable story about the ability of books to feed the soul.
LeedsBookClub is delighted to welcome back our epic Literary Guru @AlisonNeale who has kindly written up our most recent #WSwanLBC discussion. I particularly enjoy our (frequent) distractions being included!
To parallel The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, I’ll begin at the end: re-readers commented when giving their scores that while all had greatly enjoyed the book on first reading, when reading the book for a second time they recognised how manipulated they had been. Scores reflected this.
One manifestation of this manipulation was in the form of Death, which some readers felt to be a device, and not a terribly original one. More than one person had been reminded of Pratchett’s Discworld Death character. Some book clubbers said that Death’s parts of the story interrupted the flow and were outside of the reader’s perspective; however, others felt that the ‘gimmick’ of this character added to the story.
Another plot device was the interjections by the author, clarifying foreign words or filling in bits of history. It was pointed out that these were like the text cards during a silent movie.
A number of book clubbers agreed that the characters felt very real: one could imagine them off living their lives while they weren’t on the page. The mayor’s wife, for example, rarely appeared in the story, but was essential to the plot even when not the focus. The baddies, too, were realistic rather than sketches.
Liesel was felt to be a sad character: a little girl far stronger and more independent than she should have had to be, taking care of herself and untrusting of adults. It was amazing that this child should have managed to keep such a big secret even from her best friend.
The ending was inevitable, someone pointed out – we know our history – but this book offered a different perspective. Someone else commented that it wasn’t really about the Holocaust, but
instead about those outside of it – why they didn’t speak out or rebel. It was a tale of the universal human experience rather than focused on one nationality or side. However, the bombing in the latter part of the book was unusual in that criticism and questioning of the actions of the winning side are still fairly rare.
While such a serious subject being treated in a light-hearted way could have been seen as callous and ‘a tough sell’, fortunately it was very well handled: ‘whimsical without being twee’, someone
commented. One reader had issue with the book not picking up on the true horror of the situation, but it was pointed out that it was a YA book (news to some readers including yours truly), which
might account for this to some extent. An example of this lack of seriousness was the comment after the street was bombed that Death had ‘a busy day’. Some readers thus expressed a preference for non-fiction books on this subject, rather than fiction.
There was some discussion of precisely what we were reading: was it Liesel’s book, or Death’s extra-interpretation of her book, or some mash-up of different books and characters’ stories? Some
readers thus felt the narrator(s) to be trustworthy, others unreliable. Conflicting views gave the reader a choice.
The story also fixated on the format of the book: the themes of propaganda and the book-burning destruction of information were inverted by a book being wiped to create ‘more than a book’. The
descriptions of this were very physical.
On the illustrations, the question was if they added to the story. Some readers loved that the book contained them and pointed out that they hinted at what would happen. Others suggested that they were yet another device – interesting and unusual, but in the end pointless.
Some of those who read The Book Thief for the first time mentioned hesitation before beginning, and confusion with the shifts of characters, narrators and formats. However, most were desperate to finish the story once started, and very few expressed a dislike of the book. Re-readers were glad to do so, with positive recollections of the tale, but found that they separated the individual storylines more easily this time through – to its detriment, as explained earlier.