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The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

August 13, 2007

Every so often comes a novel the finishing of which leads to a sabbatical. Let me explain, I read a lot, but because I read slowly that doesn’t necessarily amount to a lot of books. But since June I’ve averaged about a book a week.

And let me say something else about my reading. As a ‘theologian’ of sorts, I read comparatively few theological books. Two years after I finished my undergraduate degree in theology I noticed that I was only reading theology books, or books from the evangelical mainstream. I wasn’t pleased. The result was a fast from these types of books during 1997. Not one; preferring to read novels exclusively.

This was prompted for several reasons. I found I was frustrated by the poor quality of writing in many of the mainstream ‘christian’ books. Too many clichés, too many re-hashed sermons which shouldn’t have been hashed in the first place. Too much celebrity status, cheaply earned. But my spirit was being fed by good writing, by literary novels and poetry. Hence the fast.

Now I read novels as a matter of course, with the occasional book of theology, carefully chosen, to salt the mix. Often however, I find that I am consuming books rather than engaging them.

That pattern is sometimes interrupted though. Sometimes I read a book that is so compelling or moving that I must cease reading for a time. Sometimes I need to recover some stability. Sometimes, I must mourn the ending of a narrative world in which I have been engrossed. It’s a rare thing and all the more precious for that.

I’m in one of those Sabbaths now, occasioned by the completion of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Padraig recommended it too me as we sat on the floor catching one another up in someone else’s house. Despite the setting—wartime Munich in the control of the Nazis, and the characters—an adopted child, a poor family, bullies and war-makers, this book is wonderful.

Death is the surprisingly engaging narrator. Funny, wise, tender, self-deprecating and haunted by the humans he takes. We are not offered the standard ‘Allies Good/Nazis Bad’ equation. All war is evil. The only good to be found is in those individuals who retain their humanity the face of atrocity. These souls, when Death collects them, are ready to go and easy to carry because so much of them have been given away in favour of others.

The book is about courage and commitment, and being true to your principles whatever the cost. It is about the enduring importance of relationships both of blood and common humanity. And most of all it is about the power of words, to destroy and to create.

Leisel is the main character, the eponymous Book Thief. She is adopted into the Hubermann family and her relationship with her adoptive father Hans Hubermann is nourished in his night-time visits to calm her after bad dreams. Like here:

Possibly the only good to come out of these nightmares was that it brought Hans Hubermann, her new papa, into the room, to soothe her, to love her.

He came in every night and sat with her. The first couple of times he simply stayed — a stranger to kill the aloneness. A few night after that, he whispered, "Shhh, I’m here, it’s all right." After three weeks, he held her. Trust was accumulated quickly, due primarily to the brute strength of the man’s gentleness, his thereness. The girl knew from the outset that Hans Hubermann would always appear midscream, and he would not leave.

A DEFINITION NOT FOUND IN THE DICTIONARY — Not leaving: an act of trust and love, often deciphered by children.

Be warned however. The ending is traumatic. Death is gentle enough to warn the reader early on of what is in store, but that doesn’t rob it of its punch. Zusak risks slipping into melodrama, but I think the overall sweep of the story and the power of the writing keeps him on track.

So I’m on a sabbatical from reading for a while.

Is this my book of the year? All I can say is that if I find a better one this year or next I’ll be especially blessed.

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