by Anthony Doerr
published: Scribner, 2014
Marie-Laure is a French girl living in Paris with her father. When she goes blind, he helps her figure out how to get around. Werner is a German boy who is destined to go work in a coal mines that killed his father. Both sets of lives are uprooted when World War II begins and they are forced to move from their homes either to flee the Nazis or to join their ranks. Their unlikely stories converge in a small town by the sea.
This is a World War II novel, but it's unlike most WWII novels. It tells the stories that aren't often talked about; there's an account of what it's like to live in a German occupied city. It also depicts the brainwashing of German children, being bred to defend the Reich. "What's good for the Fuhrer is good for us." There's also a narrative about the art acquisition for Hitler's mecca museum. In fact, we only hear a tiny bit about the Holocaust. It's definitely alluded to, but it's not the main point of this story. All these things makes this topic feel brand new.
It's a war story from the view of two children. Marie-Laure, a French girl who is blind, and Werner, a German orphan who happens to be a radio expert. The distinction between the two characters, aside from the obvious, comes from the elegant and lyrical writing. The small details make all the difference. When Werner tells the story, there are physical descriptions, but when Marie-Laure tells the story, the only physical description we get is one of her and that's because she asks somebody to tell her what she looks like. Marie-Laure's descriptions are more like tangible emotions.
It's really a character study in a time when people weren't thought of as individuals. I found myself rooting for most everyone; characters from both the French and German side. I tried not to get my hopes up because, being a WWII novel, I knew everything wouldn't be alright in the end. No one lives through something like that and is 'alright'. Those experiences change and mold people into someone else.
The time line in this novel is not linear. It moves back and forth in the characters lives, beginning in Saint-Malo late in the war. Then it moves back in time to introduce Marie-Laure and Werner just before the beginning of the war. The jumps in time make this story even more compelling. The bits of information that are revealed in the present timeline, invites the reader to ask questions about how the characters get in their current situations.
Anthony Doerr's incredible storytelling makes this story come right off the pages, breathing life in words. It reminds us to "open your eyes and see what you can see with them before they close forever." I will definitely be looking up his other works in the future.
"This jewel of a story is put together like a vintage timepiece, its many threads coming together so perfectly. Doerr's writing and imagery are stunning. It's been a while since a novel had me under its spell in this fashion."
--Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting For Stone
"A tender exporation of this world;s paradoxes: the beauty of the laws of nature and the terrible ends to which war subverts them, the frailty and the resilience of the human heart, the immutability of a moment and the healing power of time. The language is as expertly crafted as the master locksmith's models in the story, and the settings as intricately evoked. A compelling and uplifting novel.
--M.L. Stedman, author of The Light Between Oceans
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