Five-hundred-forty-four pages, Scribner.
My first thought was, not another book about war. I seem to have read so many for my book club lately. However, just a handful of pages into this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, pre-conceived notions evaporated and I became immersed in Doerr’s vivid storytelling.
This is the tale of a blind French girl and a gifted German boy whose lives intersect during the war. Marie-Laure is a young girl living in Paris with her father at the cusp of Germany’s invasion of France. Six-year-old Marie-Laure is losing her eyesight as her single father does his best to raise her in a world cruel to those with disabilities. He builds a miniature reconstruction of their neighbourhood so she can find her way. Marie-Laure’s blindness doesn’t deter her curious mind and growing intellect. Her days are spent at the Museum of Natural History where her father is a talented locksmith.
The German invasion has the pair scrambling for the relative safety of the walled town of St. Malo where her great uncle lives. Her father appears to be entrusted with an item of extreme cultural importance and monetary value. He hides this object in an intricate wooden puzzle box and takes it with them to St. Malo. Marie-Laure becomes the owner of the puzzle box when her father disappears. The arduous journey to St. Malo is the beginning of an innocent girl’s recruitment into the dangerous resistance movement that at turns risks her life and saves it.
As Marie-Laure’s marvelous story unfolds, we read a parallel tale about a young boy named Werner who lives in an orphanage in Germany. He develops the ability to fix and make radios. His talents at first rescue him from a life of poverty, the destiny that awaits all the children at the orphanage. Gradually, his eagerness to please and brilliant mind end up being harnessed by the brutal Third Reich. Chapter by chapter, events in each character’s life bring them one step closer to their fateful encounter.
Simply told and elegantly written, this tale seized me by the heart as it drew images of goodness, evil and the shifting margin that separates them. Though Marie-Laure is blind for most of the novel, she sees more than others. The ability to sense good and bad saves her when not only does the war turn up on her doorstep but forces itself inside.
While touched by Marie-Laure’s narrative, I was sickened by Werner’s transformation from sympathetic and endearing boy to a Nazi soldier tasked with unspeakable missions. Marie-Laure and Werner’s stories equally crushed my heart and made my spirit soar.