The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?
Well, I’ll be damned. This book was perfect. Utter perfection. And I knew it was a going to be from the first 15 pages. Not that I was particularly surprised considering it won the Pulizter Prize for Fiction in 2015.
This historical fiction novel tells the story of Marie-Laure and Werner as they try to survive the devastation of World War II. At the beginning of the book Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, the master of locks for the Museum of Natural History. When she is six years old, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds her a miniature model of their neighbourhood. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s cloistered great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea.
Meanwhile, Werner, an orphan living in a mining town in Germany, grows up with his younger sister listening to the crude radio he repaired himself. His skill with building and fixing these instruments lands Werner at a school for Hitler Youth. He travels through the war and finally their paths converge when he too finds himself in Saint-Malo.
This captivating tale is one of detail, dazzling metaphors, and compassion.
This book is overflowing with beautiful imagery (fair warning: this does make it a bit dense at times — this was a slow read for me). Because one of our main protagonists is blind, Doerr’s writing appeals primarily to the other senses – smell, touch, taste, hearing, which makes reading this book such a visceral experience.
But Doerr is a literary genius. GENIUS. I had to actively restrain myself from tabbing every page because literally (pun intended) every page had some mind-blowing metaphor or breathtaking sentence.
Let me just insert a couple of my favourites here:
“Marie-Laure.” His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers.
Everyone wants to hear Werner’s stories. What were the exams like, what did they make you do, tell us everything. The youngest children tug his sleeves; the older ones are deferential. This snowy-haired dreamer plucked out of the soot.
Then there’s the sixth floor: her grandfather’s tidy bedroom on the left, toilet straight ahead, the little room where she sleeps with her father on the right. When the wind is blowing, which it almost always is, with the walls groaning and the shutters banging, the rooms overloaded and the staircase wound tightly up through its center, the house seems the material equivalent of her uncle’s inner being: apprehensive, isolated, but full of cobwebby wonders.
Ok. Fire. Mic drop. I’m done.
These characters are real and complex. War brings out the worst in humanity and Doerr does a phenomenal job portraying such moral ambiguity, which makes these characters SO interesting (shoutout to my boy Werner).
Disclaimer: this book is full of heart-wrenching and tear-jerking moments. You’ve been warned.
In my opinion, this is a book that gets better with time. It’s been about a month since I’ve finished reading it and the more I look back and think about it, the more I come to like and appreciate this beautiful story and its writing.
My rating: ★★★★★