“A single hour can consist of thousands of different colours” – and Markus Zusak shows us how.
Set in Nazi Germany during the Second World War, this novel is a unique masterpiece of storytelling, sensitively encompassing the hopeful naïvety of children within its brutal wartime context. Narrated by Death itself – an intriguing and often darkly humorous character – it follows the life of 9 year old Liesel, a girl whose courage and innocence provides a heartbreaking insight into life under fascist occupation.
Sent to Munich to live with foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann, Liesel soon befriends the loyal and mischievous Rudy, with both soon struggling to find amusement amid the poverty of their rundown neighbourhood. Yet the first thing Liesel befriends is books: and it is Hans, her quietly devoted foster father, who teaches her to read. For Liesel, (and for me and many others I hope) books open up a limitless world of imagination, providing some comfort in the loving yet rundown conditions of her home in Himmel Street
Himmel – meaning ‘heaven’ in German – is itself a play on the hell that soon ensues in the street for Liesel; hell in the form of war. Yet for some time she escapes, oblivious, until the arrival of a Jewish gentleman, Max Vandenburg. It is in this unassuming young man that she comprehends the true importance of words and their immense power, and in administering to the secrecy that surrounds him discovers the injustice of discrimination and the unfair nature of society. A Jew in Nazi Germany, he must be kept hidden in the basement, and in her visits to him in the bleak, cold underground room Liesel learns how to write; more importantly, she learns how to tell a story, the story of her tragic young life.
In the big house high up on the hill Liesel encounters Frau Hermann, the mayor’s wife, a broken woman waiting to be fixed. In her vast library Liesel enters a world of new possibilities, away from Hitler’s Germany, though an ensuing quarrel with the book-owner leads to her exclusion from the ocean of literature. After that, Liesel steals. It isn’t the first occasion of her book thievery, but is (so I believe) her most significant, as this time she experiences true regret, and begins to understand the reasons for the lonely woman’s detachment from the rest of the world.
Through the contrasting yet strangely harmonious characters of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, Zusak manages to encompass the love that grows even in the most hostile situations, one that flourishes despite adversity and surpasses wealth and blood ties. Liesel’s best friend Rudy is the embodiment of innocent, pure friendship, resilient and courageous in the face of danger and loyal to the last. Zusak’s narrative achieves poignancy with its ability to skilfully explore the tragic events of World War Two – and life under Nazi occupation – from a child’s perspective, using almost dramatic irony to sustain the atmosphere of unease and draw the reader further into the lives of Himmel Street’s inhabitants.
If you haven’t read this book, I would strongly advise you to. This short review can in no way capture the beautiful essence of this book, and the simple yet titanic struggles both the characters and readers must face throughout life that Zusak manages to communicate in such a unique fashion. The fascinating perspective of Death throughout the story adds a strange sense of humanity to its unnatural presence, inspiring deep reflection on grief and the ways in which we all deal with it.
Ultimately, Zusak succeeds in penning a tale of life and death that resonates with readers of all ages. Its last words – as told by Death – summarise it perfectly:
“I am haunted by humans”.