In 1934, a six year-old French girl goes blind. A seven year-old German orphan boy pulls his sister in a wagon to see the mines where their father died. In 1940 her father carries her out of Paris, and he answers exam papers: “Where was your grandfather born? What color are your father’s eyes? Has your mother ever worked in an office?”. In 1944 she huddles under her bed. Five blocks away, he stumbles into a dark cellar. Both of them are fiercely intelligent, but neither of them know how to stop the war from dragging them into the dark.
Style & Pacing
The story moves around in time, but in a way that is easy to follow. One thread begins in 1934 and move forwards from there, the other charts the events of a few days in August, 1944. Eventually the two meet, and then we are given a few brief insights into the later lives of the major characters. The plot moves slowly, but it doesn’t stagnate. Things happen slowly because Doerr describes them in great detail, letting us get to know the characters and understand them, allowing us to see them grow.
It came as a surprise to me, but by the end of the book, my favourite character was Werner. He doesn’t always make the right choices, but he isn’t evil: he knows things are wrong, but he doesn’t know how to fight his whole country. He wants to be a scientist, but he doesn’t want to think about the results of his work. I liked Marie-Laure a lot too, but she doesn’t develop as much, and she’s just a little too perfect. Easy to empathise with, but not as fascinating. Of the side characters, my favourites were Frau Elena and Madame Manec, the latter especially. Without her refusal to give in, Marie-Laure certainly would have.
This is probably the strongest element of this novel. The language is elegant and fluid. Doerr uses the beauty of his language to make the horror more shocking. Death described carefully and poetically forces the brain to picture everything in precise detail. The writing is also powerful in the parts of the book which discuss science and the natural world, as well as when letting us understand how Marie-Laure experiences a world she cannot see.
“Artillery has stopped for a moment, and the predawn fires within the walls take on a steady middle life, an adulthood. The western edge of the city has become a holocaust of crimson and carmine from which rise multiple towers of smoke. The largest has curdled into a pillar like the cloud of tephra and ash and steam that billows atop an erupting volcano. From afar, the smoke appears strangely solid, as though carved from luminous wood. All along its perimeter, sparks rise and ash falls and administrative documents flutter: utility plans, purchase orders, tax records.”
“Twenty-two paces to the intersection with the rue d’Estrées. Forty more to the little gate. Nine steps down and she’s on the sand and the twenty thousand sounds of the ocean engulf her. … Her bedroom fills with pebbles, seaglass, shells: forty scallops along the windowsill, sixty-one whelks along the top of the armoire. She arranges them by species whenever she can, then by size. Smallest on the left, largest on the right. She fills jars, pails, trays; the room assumes the smell of the sea.”
“Metallic, tattered mponlight shatters across the road, and a white horse stands chewing in a field, and a searchlight rakes the sky, and in the lit window of a mountain cabin, for a split second as they rumble past, Werner sees Jutta seated at a table, the bright faces of other children around her, Frau Elena’s needlepoint over the sink, the corpses of a dozen infants heaped in a bin beside the stove.