This exemplary piece of literary fiction, a 530 page novel written by American author Anthony Doerr (2014) was the winner of the Purlitzer Prize in 2014 and was highly acclaimed winning many awards. The story follows the juxtaposing lives of Werner, a young German orphan living in an orphan house with his younger sister Jutta, and Marie Laure a blind French girl living in an apartment in central Paris with her father, whose lives ultimately end up crossing paths in occupied France at the start of World War II.
It is a riveting, captivating, story that is so well written and has the most hauntingly beautiful prose I have probably ever read. With that being said, I do have some issues with the length in which the background story goes on for. I felt like I arrived to the middle of the book and I was still waiting on the story to really take off and begin.
The novel is brimming with rich detail which satisfies all of the readers senses simultaneously. You can see, hear, feel and touch, essentially everything that the author is trying to convey to the reader with all the amazing metaphors and striking imagery. It is one of those novels that you just know could easily become the subject for a HSC novel on “belonging” or “identity” and because I wasn’t forced to read it in an in school setting, I really loved and enjoyed it, ha!
Two parallel lives
The story begins by flicking back and forth between the lives of two small children. Werner Pfenning, an eight year old boy who growing up in an orphanage in Zollverein Germany with his younger sister Jutta under the kind and encouraging guidance of Frau Elena. He is a highly inquisitive and spectacularly talented young boy with a penchant for fixing mechanical systems and a strong understanding of science. Despite the fact that young Werner has a dream to go to Berlin and work as a scientist, he is constantly reminded that he will be sent to work in the mines when he turns 15 – ultimately facing the same fatal destiny as his father.
The second child is Marie Laure, a blind French girl who lost her vision age 6 due to cataracts. She lives with her Father in an apartment in Paris where he works as a locksmith at the Mueseum of Natural history in Paris. Her father is the kindest, most loving and tender father to her and attempts to help her deal with her loss of vision by buying her novels such as “Round the world in 80 days” by Jules Verne written in Braille, and by building her wooden replicas of their neighbourhood in an attempt to help her navigate it blind.
As rumours of German occupation grow, Marie Laure flees Paris with her father after he is entrusted with an extremely and almost enchanted diamond named “The Sea of Flames” by the museum. It is a highly beautiful and sought after stone which supposedly imparts a curse to he who holds it, affecting him and his family forever. The stone is highly metaphorical and essentially isn’t a very large role in the story. When it was first mentioned in the story I was a little bit worried that it would turn into a fantasy or sci-fi novel but rest assured the story of the stone is just representative of the events that the characters will begin to face.
It is worthy to note that following the two small children in their younger years is of colossal importance. It aids in the development of the characters and although at some point in the story you reach a mind frame where you feel you’ve read 250 pages and nothing of great consequence has happened, the later part of the novel is when it really begins to unfold. When it does, you find yourself feeling for them in ways you didn’t expect, and I believe it is primarily because you have followed their story since childhood and that you know them very well. I suspect that this was the main aim of the author. Well played Doerr, well played.
Both characters are made to adapt to the surroundings of a new home in their early adolescence. It was refreshing to read a novel set in World War II where the main characters were not thrown into a tumultuous series of unfortunate events in every new place they go. The places that both Werner and Marie-Laure had to move to after the onset of the war saw them meet new and not so terrible people. When Werner is scouted after he fixes a Nazi officials radio and is sent from the orphanage to a nazi school in Schulpforta, he meets his new friend Fredrick. His genius is recognised by Scientist Dr Hauptmann who takes him to the lab each night and allows him to each chocolate (an extremely rare commodity in Nazi Germany) and listen to classical music whilst fixing radios and other mechanical parts.
Marie Laure and her father make a journey on foot to Saint Malo to her father’s great Uncle Etienne’s house where they are kindly greeted by his loyal, kind, elderly house keeper Madame Manec. The scene where they are welcomed was heart warming I could sense the relief that they felt upon their arrival at the safe haven. All is not well however as Marie Laure’s father is made to return to Paris when he recieves telegram from the musuem, and the words the close the chapter where he leaves read “it’ll just be a matter of days”. The repetition and emphasis put on the fact that he would return very soon sends a clear signal to the reader that her father will not return in a matter of days. Yes, of course, on his way to Paris Marie Laure’s father is kidnapped and sent to a Prison camp in Germany.
The book continues on a slow pace after this section, describing in detail the days that go by and how Marie Laure and Werner live their lives in the situation they’re in currently. It’s not until the bombing of Saint Malo that the events start to pick up and happen in rapid succession. More so, the aforementioned idea that this book is most pleasantries begins to change as we see a range of devastating and life changing events begin to take place. From the beating of Fredrick that leaves him permanently brain damaged, to the death of Madame Manec, we begin to see the reality and devastating situation that such a senseless futile war bought about into their lives.
Though the political devastation and war has wreaked havoc into their lives, Werner and Marie Laure continue on in a will for survival that is astonishing and inspiring. The novel continues on all the way through to the end of the war, and also continues on to a little bit after. The underlying themes within this book are the things that made it touch my heart so much. The metaphor that comes in the form of the Sea of Flames diamond, and the connection that the Radio fostered. More so, the way that the radio was continually banned shows the main intention of the Nazi regime: isolation, alienation and loss of all communication between Germany and anyone in the outside world. There are so many hidden themes within the book, they’re impossible to exemplify unless you have read it.
Conclusively I give the book 4.5/5. Losing out on the half mark only for the sake of an extremely lengthy back story. As aforementioned, it did well to foster a relationship between reader and audience and it also did well to develop the characters. However for readers who prefer fast paced novels with more action, this story may not be the one for you. Events could have began to unfold earlier, however other than that, there is nothing to say about his amazing work of art novel.