I have read The Book Thief before, at least twice, but in the way I read everything when I was younger: quickly, for the sake of plot, without looking properly at anything else. So when it came up on the Book Smugglers' January Readalong it seemed like a good thing to re-read.
I wasn't wrong.
Narrated by Death, it's the story of Liesel Meminger, a girl adopted by a family living near Munich in 1939, who gets into the habit of stealing books, from graveyards, from Nazi bonfires, from private libraries.
It's certainly an elegant little novel, about words, and their power to damn or save, console or condemn. There are all these amazing, subtle little ironies that come from Death's narration and our own awareness of what went on under Hitler; lines like "It was the summer of 1939, and Nazi Germany was a wonderful place", or Liesel's childish, completely believable exclamation that "I hate the Fuhrer!" Death is a brilliantly neutral narrator, too: he takes no sides except the side of the suffering; he is, unlike the stereotype, compassionate, often disgusted by humanity, interested by them despite himself, and, in his own way, rather sad. All of the characters who populate The Book Thief are touching - Rudy Steiner, Liesel's best friend; Max, a Jew sheltered by Liesel's adoptive family; Liesel's adoptive parents, whose names escape me at the moment - all memorable, and all somehow sad, in the manner of real people with their own pasts and problems.
And, dammit, this book made me cry. In public. There aren't many books that can do that, although I cry in films all the time. The Book Thief is still, sad, haunting and compassionate (it's rather nice seeing a WWII story written from the German point of view - I can't, off the top of my head, think of any others I've read) without being utterly bleak or utterly hopeless. This one's a keeper.