Nine-year-old Liesel lives with her foster family on Himmel Street during the dark days of the Third Reich. Her Communist parents have been transported to a concentration camp, and during the funeral for her brother, she manages to steal a macabre book: it is, in fact, a gravediggers’ instruction manual. This is the first of many books which will pass through her hands as the carnage of the Second World War begins to hungrily claim lives.
Both Liesel and her fellow inhabitants of Himmel Street will find themselves changed by both words on the printed page and the horrendous events happening around them.
Despite its grim narrator, The Book Thief is, in fact, a life-affirming book, celebrating the power of words and their ability to provide sustenance to the soul. Interestingly, the Second World War setting of the novel does not limit its relevance: in the 20th century, totalitarian censorship throughout the world is as keen as ever at suppressing books (notably in countries where the suppression of human beings is also par for the course) and that other assault on words represented by the increasing dumbing-down of Western society as cheap celebrity replaces the appeal of books for many people, ensures that the message of Marcus Zusak’s book could not be more timely. It is, in fact, required reading—or should be in any civilised country.