What’s it about:
Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, the keeper of keys at the Natural History Museum. Werner grows up an orphan in a German town, with the future of a mining life looming ahead. But it’s the turbulent times of WW2 and they both get uprooted and cast far away from comfort. For Marie, it’s the excruciating escape to Saint-Malo and the fear of American bombs that drop from the sky. For Werner, it’s the promise of a better life, a life filled with science and discovery but something that soon catapults out of his control. How do these two unite and under what circumstances? That forms the crux of the story.
What I thought:
Few books in the recent times had my attention the way this one did. From the get go, you fall into rhythm with the narrative that the author is trying to build. He cuts back and forth, past and present, cuts across locations, France and Germany, meticulously building characters and premise. He takes you deep into the minds of the folk who had to experience the war first-hand. Directly or indirectly. So much that war itself becomes a living breathing character.
Apparently this book has been ten years in the making, and it shows. I can’t begin to imagine the countless hours of research that something of this magnitude would take. I haven’t read a lot of World War fiction so can’t say this with absolute certainty, but something that usually doesn’t get talked about a lot is how the World Wars affected the common folk. And how differently the world view appears from the ground up. Doerr succeeds here immensely; he doesn’t sugar-coat, and there’s absolutely no attempt to emotionally entangle the reader. I’ve never seen bluntness used so to such an effect.
The chapters are kept short, some even just a couple of paragraphs, which keeps the momentum going. It’s also a clever way to make the book unputdownable, as there’s always something or the other happening. The language is crisp, yet poetic. And the author is somehow able to set up a whole scene, sights and sounds and smells, with just a handful of words at times.
If I’m talking so much about the technical aspects of the book, I think it’s because it deserves to be highlighted. This is a book where one soon realizes that the narrative is going to be bigger than anything, even if it tells two extremely personal tales. It might not have the gravitas of, say The Book Thief, but it makes one walk away with a feeling that they’ve just beheld something epic.
world-war-II, France, Germany, Saint-Malo, Sea-of-Flames, Jules-Verne, radio, Hitler’s-Youth, Clair-de-Lune