The Book Thief

The author’s reader

Annika, best test reader!

Readers are, of course, the most important component of an author’s life: without readers there would be no point in writing. There are, however, two kinds of reader. As well as the wonderful readers who pay authors the compliment of spending time on reading their books after publication, most authors also have personal – or test/beta – readers, who read the book on behalf of the author to make sure that it ‘works’.

I’m particularly fortunate in that Annika, my chief test reader, is German. Although she speaks English fluently, it is not her mother tongue. As she says, “I read every word because it’s a foreign language and otherwise I would not understand the full meaning of the sentence.” She proof-reads the books at the same time, and sometimes goes back and reads a passage twice because she has been struck by something odd about it. She checks for inconsistencies in the narrative, often double-checking with other passages in the book she’s reading and in the DI Yates novels that have preceded it. For example, in one of the early books she thought the timescale didn’t work, so she went back and took notes of all the events that were supposed to have taken place within a certain time period, to make sure they were feasible. “The characters did four or five things on a single day, before lunch! I remember thinking they had squeezed an awful lot in.” I altered the timescale of the events she mentions. She adds, however, that there have been occasions when the narrative didn’t seem quite right to her and then when she went back it was actually ok. She also checks practical details – travel arrangements, which flights go from which airports, whether the time it takes to get from A to B is doable.

Her favourite DI Yates novel is Fair of Face – “because it’s so unusual”, but she says she likes all of them, for different reasons. She reads more books in German than in English, because it’s more relaxing for her, but when she reads crime it’s mainly in English, because most crime fiction available in German is translated from English and she would rather read it in the language it’s written in. It takes Annika about two weeks to read one of my books, reading approximately two hours a day. She estimates that she spends about twice as long on them as an English reader would and probably a third more time than if she were just reading them for pleasure.

Annika usually reads the Yates novels in typescript and she checks details in previous novels from the typescripts she worked on originally, because it’s quicker for her. “I often think I should read them in print, to see what you made of my comments! They’re suggestions only, you’re bound not to agree with some.”

I asked her if she learns anything from them – do they, for example, give her a feel for what it’s like to live in Lincolnshire, a county that she doesn’t know well? She says the books do give her an idea of what the area I write about is like, but “I can’t tell if it’s realistic – in that if I went to live there, I don’t know if it would be like that”. (I don’t think it would – on the whole, I don’t write about people with a similar lifestyle to hers.)

She says that all authors should have a test reader to look out for inconsistencies. She adds that I’ve improved – she’s finding fewer mistakes in the more recent novels than in the early ones.

Annika’s own tastes in reading are eclectic. She likes Jan-Philip Sendker, a German author who has described evocatively what it’s like to be a westerner in Asia. “The quality of language when I’m reading in German plays a higher role for me than when I’m reading in English. But I don’t like high-flown or pretentious writing and, generally, not ‘classical’ authors – I don’t like Goethe or Schiller. For this reason, poetry often doesn’t ‘speak’ to me. I liked Der Schwarm, by Frank Schätzing, but I didn’t like his other books nearly as much when I tried them.”

There are exceptions to her preference not to read books in translation. “I really loved The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, which I read in German.” That is a point on which Annika and I can agree wholeheartedly!

So, without Annika, I’d miss out on a very shrewd aspect of the editorial process; my editor similarly values the fact that Annika’s unique skills and linguistic viewpoint work in tandem with his scrutiny and together they are a formidable team in support of DI Yates!

Thank you, Annika, for choosing this for me…

The Book Thief

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

I know I am the latest in a very long line of people to say this, or something like it, but here goes: The Book Thief is a monumental yet delicate and extraordinarily beautiful novel.  It is the sort of novel that stays with your forever once you’ve read it; the sort of novel that you know you’ll want to read again.  (For me, very few novels make it into this category.)

Why is it so amazing?  The publisher’s blurb gives almost nothing away: Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street.  Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp.  Liesel steals books.  This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.  This sounds intriguing, but conventional.  Yet another tale about the Second World War, you might think, made slightly unusual (but not unique) by being told from the point of view of a German child.

Some of the narrative is indeed presented from Liesel’s weltanschauung; the remainder, from the viewpoint of an altogether more shadowy and amorphous character, Death himself (or herself – Zusak is not sexist about this, so we don’t actually find out whether Death has a gender).  Strangely, given Liesel’s tragic background (she watches her little brother die during a train journey and shortly afterwards is brutally separated from her mother, her father having already ‘disappeared’) and Death’s status, one of the most striking things about this novel is that every sentence is written with love.  Death itself loves his or her victims and reflects ruefully on the absurdities that have put them in his / her way.  The far-from-perfect characters are all drawn with love, so that the reader is made to appreciate the best in them: Rosa Hubermann, Liesel’s fat, irascible and scatological foster-mother; Frau Holtzapfel, the niggardly neighbour who pays Liesel with increasingly scarce groceries to read to her; Max Vandenburg, the rather cowardly Jewish refugee taken in by the Hubermanns at great personal risk to themselves and the mayor’s wife who owns a large library and whose mind has been permanently impaired by the loss of her son during  the First World War – all are drawn by the author with love.  The greatest of this authorial love is lavished on Rudy Steiner, Liesel’s playmate and would-be childish boyfriend, and Hans Hubermann, her stepfather. But even Hitler is portrayed with sidelong glints of love.

The author himself seems to be as much a painter as a poet.  He writes more emotively about colour than any other writer I’ve encountered.  Not only does he assign unexpected colours to things both animate and inanimate, but he seems to attach values to them.  Hans Hubermann’s repeatedly described silver eyes are full of sterling worth; black is the colour of incomprehension and confusion; the rights of white to be considered a colour are tenaciously asserted.  Colours are even turned into verbs: “The sky was beginning to charcoal.”

Of the many paradoxes that make up The Book Thief, the greatest is that it is an overtly moral tale that neither preaches nor follows an accepted moral code.  It achieves this both despite and because of the small moralising paragraphs, always presented in bold, that on one level resemble parodies of the ‘lessons’ in Victorian morality tales, on another set in shorthand the tone of the next scene: “A Portrait of Pfiffikus.  He was a delicate frame.  He was white hair.  He was a black raincoat, brown pants, decomposing shoes, and a mouth – and what a mouth it was.”

The contradictoriness of morality that the book captures throughout is displayed in the title.  Liesel is herself the eponymous Book Thief, yet the reader never believes that her theft of eight selected books one by one at longish intervals during her childhood is immoral.  In some ways each theft is life-affirming, though ironically the first is of a gravedigger’s manual, stolen for comfort before Liesel  is able to read and therefore understand its contents.  Hans subsequently teaches her to read by ploughing through this book with her during the long nights when her nightmares drive away sleep, because he refuses to leave her to suffer them on her own: so the act of reading, celebrated throughout the novel as the great life-affirming skill that is also often Liesel’s saviour, grows out of a damp tome of death and a young girl’s horrific sense of loss.  Each book that she steals teaches Liesel more about life – not always because of its contents: sometimes it is because of the circumstances in which the book is acquired – so that each theft marks a milestone in the process of her growing-up, her loss of innocence.  Finally, she receives as a birthday present a book that has been written especially for her, a hymn to her goodness concealed within an ironical yet harrowing account of the rise and rise of ‘the Fuehrer’.

At the macro level, The Book Thief symbolises the story of a nation trying to make sense of what happened to it and therefore understand how it managed to lose its way.  It is a story of the riches that may be found in poverty, the generosity towards others that may yet be found within the hearts of those in extreme danger, the puzzle that is life itself.  It also affirms, strongly yet subtly, pervasively yet unobtrusively, that there is nothing, was nothing and never has been anything inherently ‘bad’ in the German race.  Germans, then as now, came in all the myriad colours of morality, just like the members of every other race on the earth.

I’d like to offer my very great thanks to Annika for choosing The Book Thief for me.

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