“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”
It’s taken me some time to review this book by Pulitzer-winning author Anthony Doerr, who earned the coveted award for this fictional novel inspired by the nightmare of World War II.
The imaginative tale poetically parallels two compelling story lines, climaxing with the anticipated 1944 meeting of the lovely Marie-Laure, a blind French girl who escapes Nazi-occupied Paris and flees with her father to the citadel of Saint-Malo to live with her reclusive great-uncle — and the German orphan Werner, who finds himself as a young boy genius among the Hitler Youth with a mission to hunt down the resistance.
Though it’s set nearly seven decades ago, Doerr puts technology and its role in a changing society, largely how the government controls and uses it, front and center. A quiet reminder of our own realities.
The German army used radio, the primary connection one had to the outside world at the time.
During the war, the Germans banned them all. Werner, who grew up in an orphanage enchanted by the technology and had a knack for building and fixing the instruments, was quickly recruited to use his expertise to track down all who continued to illegally broadcast information to aid the resistance. Like Etienne, Marie-Laure’s uncle.
Many times while reading this fast-paced, haunting novel, I furrowed my heavy brows as if to display the perfect caricature of anguish. The pain is felt, and Doerr makes sure of it.
“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?”
Through Werner and his sister, Jutta, for example. Jutta, who embodies all that is right and good in the world, internally clashes with her brother’s role in Nazi Germany. She becomes “the moral constant against which Werner measures his own sins,” as Lit Charts points out. And while the pair remains close throughout the novel, their relationship waxes and wanes. What stung me most: The censored correspondence between the two, the delayed letters, the unsaid. To ache and hide your ache from the one person in the world you love most.
“Is it right,” Jutta says, “to do something only because everyone else is doing it?”
Another example: Marie-Laure’s relationship with her locksmith father, Daniel LeBlanc. The love is almost painstakingly beautiful. When she becomes blind, he creates scale models of the city for her to use in navigation, a symbol of their intimate connection. But Daniel’s presence is temporary. And his absence quickly strips away a part of Marie-Laure’s softness.
“You know the greatest lesson of history? It’s that history is whatever the victors say it is. That’s the lesson. Whoever wins, that’s who decides the history. We act in our own self-interest. Of course we do. Name me a person or a nation who does not. The trick is figuring out where your interests are.”
While I connected with Doerr and his striking prose, I felt detached from or dissatisfied with Werner’s character. William T. Vollmann, who reviewed the book for the New York Times in 2014, said it well:
“Marie-Laure’s participation in the Resistance develops naturally out of who she is,” he wrote. “Werner’s life lacks context, at least during the important period when he has departed Schulpforta for the Eastern Front. As a child he was as appealingly drawn as Marie-Laure. But he now becomes somehow less knowable to us, less real.” I also struggle with Werner’s conscience compartmentalizing, despite his shadowing moral compass in Jutta. Perhaps it’s a testament to the power of Nazi propaganda.
I, like many, also wanted so much more for and from Jutta.
And then there’s the cursed Sea of Flames, at times a little too gimmicky for my taste. But at times the perfect symbol of tragedy, hope, and of what the war did to dreamers.
About the title:
"The title is a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant),” Doerr says. “It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility."