This was the kind of book that I started reading slower near the end, so I could stay within its world for a little longer. I even flipped through the acknowledgements, as if there might be an epilogue hidden after them.
In this National Book Award finalist, Anthony Doerr takes the narrative overload of World War II and carves out a story small enough to engage with, but stays true to the vast network of lives colliding during that time.
Werner, an orphan growing up in a mining town in Germany, is fascinated by radios. Late at night, he uses his homemade radio to listen to the unidentified French voice who teaches him about light and magnetism. Building things distracts him from the fear that he’ll end up working in the same mines that killed his father.
Marie-Laure is a blind girl living in Paris with her father, a locksmith for the Musum of Natural History. She learns to navigate the world by counting storm drains, and spends her days reading and rereading the Braille book that her father gives her each year on her birthday.
Doerr uses a split narrative to slowly converge the stories of Werner and Marie-Laure. The road that brings them together unfolds naturally yet powerfully: Werner’s latent engineering ability leads him to a science academy for Hitler Youth, while the German occupation of France forces Marie-Laure and her father to flee to the coastal town of Saint-Malo to live with her great-uncle. He is haunted by the ghosts of World War I and can’t leave the house, but his housekeeper is bold enough to bite the Germans back.
And among all this war is a diamond, hidden away for decades in the Museum of Natural History. The diamond supposedly carries a curse: whoever possesses it will not die, but one by one, everyone around them will suffer great misfortune.
Doerr could have let it dominate the story, but instead it becomes one of many threads that ultimately the characters will direct, not him. Werner and Marie-Laure are not tied together by any sort of magical fate, but rather through realistic connections, and this deviation from the expected captivated me until the final page.
Doerr makes the story vivid through a combination of carefully researched details and multifaceted characters. The people driving forward the story have varied motivations – to return to their old life, to pursue their passion, to find glory or revenge – that, really, are only different manifestations of the basic need to survive. Each motivation rings true to the character’s personality and situation. It seems that Doerr simply followed them through their lives, rather than creating them.
Time Taken: At nearly 550 pages, it’s not a casual weekend read. But if you’re willing to invest in it, you just might find that it doesn’t take long enough.
Worth reading: In short, yes. Doerr does not shy away from the harsh realities of war, which might not make for an uplifting story, but it does make for a cathartic one. And I find that those carry the greatest impact and stay with me the most.