This is another war story (they are so unavoidable). It’s the story about the frog in the pot of water: the one where the frog will jump out of boiling water, but won’t take action if the heat is applied slowly, and so cooks. Here it’s used as a metaphor for complacency as the Germans move in and occupy France, and also, I think, of the German people themselves becoming immune to the violence building in their own country. Interesting in that we are invited to have sympathy for both the main characters as victims of war, even though one is a blind French girl and the other a partly radicalised Nazi youth. If you’ve wondered how nice kids were turned into Nazis, here it suggests they were put in the pot when the water was cool and inviting, and were cooked from the inside out.
Werner is a very likeable featherweight of a boy, who lives in a children’s home with his sister, Jutta, surviving in a coal town of Zola-ish bleakness. These children, perceptive and clever, protect each other fiercely. The pair scavenge for junk and Werner makes a name for himself as a fixer, specifically of radios. To escape the fate that faces every orphan of being trapped forever down the pit when he comes of age, after impressing a Nazi official with his scientific skills he accepts sponsorship for a top school. Lucky break, right? Of course not! We know the implications, but Werner didn’t, then.
Marie-Laure is seven when she goes blind. She lives in Paris with her father, who works at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, looking after the locks. He is a trustworthy man. He makes wooden miniatures of the city for Marie-Laure so she can learn the streets with her fingers and find her way around. They wait in Paris as the Germans march in until it is almost too late, and then they flee.
They have a loving relationship, Marie-Laure and her father and he says he will never leave her but of course he does. It is wartime. They arrive destitute in Saint-Malo, the most beautiful of walled French towns on the Brittany coast and throw themselves on the mercy of the father’s uncle Etienne, who has been afraid of setting foot outside the house for years and is an odd bird, but he takes them in under the care of his stalwart housekeeper, Madame Manec. Marie-Laure’s father is called back to Paris and goes missing, they later hear he is in a camp. Great Uncle Etienne befriends the sweet Marie-Laure and blooms, perhaps finding a child more delicate and sad than he is.
War stories are always grim (authors love a bit of grim) and this one has it’s atrocities, but I’m pleased that Doerr avoided the cliché of the loveless orphans here and gives good and loyal women as carers to the children. Marie-Laure has the formidable Madame Manec and Werner and his sister grow up in the love of Frau Elena. The children know what it means to be loved.
The narrative jumps about a bit in time and goes from past to present tense which works to keep the action lively while making some things feel interminable. We suffer with Werner as he lies under rubble in a collapsed building—he’s there for almost half the book, and it’s a long book.
Werner negotiates his elite school with its sadistic teachers and fellows and he gets through, but learns not to step in when his conscience suggests he should, something I found particularly confusing (but perhaps cleverly realistic) in a character I was coming to like.
Marie-Laure learns her way around St Malo the same way she did Paris; her father has built her a model city so she read the streets and houses with her fingers. When we’re in her head we hear, rather than see, the scenes. So here is an evening with group of women:
“Nine of them sit around the square table, knees pressed to knees. Ration card restrictions, abysmal puddings, the deteriorating quality of fingernail varnish–these are crimes they feel in their souls. To hear so many of them in a room together confuses and excites Marie-Laure: they are giddy when they should be serious, sombre after jokes; Madame Hébrard cries over the nonavailability of Demerara sugar; another woman’s complaint about tobacco disintegrates midsentence into hysterics about the phenomenal size of the perfumer’s backside. They smell of stale bread, of stuffy living rooms crammed with dark titanic Breton furnishings.“
There’s plenty happening in the story, definitely a page turner. As well as the excellent stories of Marie-Laure and Werner there is a whole sub-plot about a diamond smuggled out of the Museum, the legend of a curse that goes with it, and the man that’s hunting it down, but the whole thing goes unnecessarily woowoo here, in my opinion. The diamond is what literary types would call a ‘treasure burden’, something the reader must keep in mind at all times: where is is, is it safe, what if someone steals it? It adds tension to the read, but I think the story would be better (and a better length) without it.
I really did like the book, but two other things irked me at the end, and I’ll be careful not to give away too much, but why add the 1945 scene with the Russians? It belongs to a different story, is perfunctory and clinical, perhaps because some things are best left unsaid and unfelt; so why write it at all? An easy notch, I’d say best left out. And the ending was way too long and drawn out and frankly, a bit unbelievable. I’ll leave you with the folds in West Africian cancellate nutmeg shells and the sexual dimorphism of Carribbean voluters. Does that make sense to you at the end of a read about a war story?
No, nor me.