The Book Thief is one of those rare books that is more than able to sing its own praises, beating any critic keen to muscle in. After a four year stay on The New York Times Best Seller List, the book went to film in 2013, receiving Academy Award, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations. It's debatable whether the beauty of the book transfers to screen - any adaptation would be hard pressed to match Zusak's incredible talent as a writer.
The Book Thief is the tale of Liesel, a German orphan sent to live with foster parents just as The Second World War beckons. The novel is narrated by Death, personified as a human being rather than a skeleton in a cape. Even though I found grim reaper narration grating at first – Death is careless with spoilers, they litter the book as freely as the bodies he collects – I soon settled into Zusak's strange, intriguing style.
From Liesel's reluctant arrival at the Hubermann house, to her meeting her childhood best friend, to her visits to the mayor's house, to her dangerous, loveable visitor... the plot is tense, to say the least. If you're after a book that will literally have you groaning in agony at the end of every chapter, you're on the right path.
The characters are warm, rich and very much alive: most especially Hans Hubermann, Liesel's twinkling foster father, with his accordion, soothing voice and silver eyes. Even Rosa, his blustering wife, is far from the caricature she could be. She's simply a permanently irritable woman who just happens to attack her child with a wooden spoon every now and then.
Every character Zusak introduces catches the attention of the reader and makes a strong impression. Rudy, Liesel's childhood best friend and one of her many equals in spirit and bravery, is characterised by bright yellow hair and a love of thievery. Their adventures, ranging from football in the street to leaving bread for starving Jews, add a touch of innocence in a novel that is otherwise very dark. These characters remind us that good is present even in times of extreme evil.
What's most bewitching is the portrayal of 1940s Nazi Germany. Vivid and terrifying, you are with Liesel, you are with Death. With the story's strange narrator, you see everything through the eyes of the unbiased, and it is unforgettable.