The front book cover proclaims : “When Death tells a story, you really have to listen”. I found that to be true for in the space of just two days I have devoured all 592 pages. That alone qualifies this novel as an unputdownable 5-* read.
Not that it started that way. Death, the narrator, is sardonic and, at times, extremely flippant and it takes a while to get used to his style. However, once I’d achieved this and was travelling with him through the experiences of Liesel Meminger, a pre-pubescent German girl, caught in the vortex of National Socialism, I found his black humour a welcome release from the horror of reality.
The story starts with Liesel’s journey to her new foster parents who live in a small street in Molching, a suburb of Munich, just round the corner from the Dachau concentration camp. The irony of the name is sweet – Himmelstrasse – Heaven Street. It is a street which serves as a microcosm of German society of the time, a society which is anything but heavenly, a society in which ordinary working-class Germans hope to remain, if not untouched, then at least undamaged by the monstrous regime which has enveloped them.
Liesel’s thievery begins as she travels to Molching. Her brother dies on the journey and at his burial she steals a book she finds lying in the cemetery. Entitled “The Gravedigger’s Handbook” it’s not exactly a child’s reading material. But it is all she has. Her stepfather Hans reads it to her during the nights she is haunted by nightmares and thus teaches her to read. Her second book is purloined from the remnants of a book-burning. Thus is the pattern set. Throughout the Nazi period Liesel continues to steal books for she needs the words to provide stability and sense in a world which descends to madness, as people soak up and follow through on the rhetoric and propaganda of the Nazi regime.
Death knows the story even if Liesel doesn’t and the contrast between Liesel’s childish adolescent hope and trust and Death’s omniscient narration of events really packs an emotional punch. It’s a world in which Death loses his grim reaper reputation and becomes the compassionate one as he tenderly harvests the souls of the dead; a world in which Death loses his sardonic edge as he struggles to comprehend both the majesty and the barbarity of the human race.
It’s not all bleakness though and nor should it be. For there are those who strive to retain an element of humanity and swim against the tide – even if secretly (and futilely). Nonetheless these people are the commonplace heroes of the tale and their acts of courage and humanity are enough to prevent the novel (and the reader) from succumbing to nihilistic despair.
In Britain the adult edition of the book was published on 1.1.2007.
The YA edition was released 23 days later.
I read the latter for its appeal to my bookaholic nature. It was the correct decision for this is a YA novel. There are stylistic quirks and authorial decisions which I would not accept in an adult work (including the strangest decision to reveal the fate of Himmelstrasse 30 pages from the end). However, with my teenage hat on, I accept these, can even find them charming and thus, the novel retains its 5-star rating.
Winner of the 2006 Jewish Book Award (Children’s and Young Adult Literature)