Rating: 5/5 stars
Review: There’s not much I can say about this book that hasn’t already been said. It’s beautiful, lyrical, and masterful in its language, imagery, and format. It deserves all the awards it has won.
First I have to applaud Doerr for the amount of research he did to craft this novel. There were some sentences where I had to stop and wonder at the research he must have conducted to make that single sentence, and I know there were other pieces of research so subtly threaded into the text that I didn’t even notice.
Also, this is one of the first books I’ve read where the author successfully jumps between characters, times, and even letters and chapters. It’s organized in two different time frames throughout most of the book and mainly follows Marie-Laure, a blind girl living in Paris with her father who works at the Museum of Natural History as a locksmith, and Werner, a young German orphan with snowy blonde hair and an affinity for electronics and mathematics that leads the Nazis to notice him. Another character, von Rumpel, is an old sergeant major for the Nazis whose job requires him to evaluate and locate treasures for the Third Reich. His search for the Sea of Flames, a gem said to have magical powers to prevent death, leads him to the French town of Saint-Malo, where Werner and Marie-Laure also end up. The way paths cross in this novel–the overlapping of radios, gems, light, darkness, birds, etc.–is gorgeous. I’m still trying to untangle the complicated webs of plot and character that appear here, and I think I will always be trying to untangle them. This is a book that is impressed on my memory.
Consider, for example, this description of characters who never directly come into play:
“[Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel] has a wife who suffers his absences without complaint, and who arranges porcelain kittens by color, lightest to darkest, on two different shelves in their drawing room in Stuttgart. He also has two daughters whom he has not seen in nine months. The eldest, Veronika, is deeply earnest. Her letters to him include phrases like sacred resolve, proud accomplishments, and unparalleled in history.” (141)
A later chapter titled “The Simultaneity of Instants” is perhaps the most brilliant chapter of the novel. It jumps from character to character but within the same “instant.” The single paragraph, stream-of-consciousness format of this instant is also brilliant in building suspense.
Letters between Werner and his sister, Jutta, are scattered throughout the book as well. The letters are not important in and of themselves, but the heavy censorship of the letters are interesting and heartbreaking to see.
The jumping between time frames is complicated in that it does reveal certain truths to the audience that the characters themselves are unaware of. We know much early than Marie-Laure, for example, what her father means when he instructs her to look in the house, and I can see how other readers might be bored with this then. Yet the whole truth is never revealed to us. We don’t know what will happen to any of the characters we have come to love until the end of the novel. This is what drove me to continue reading.
Moreover, I think it’s important for this novel to have a non-chronological format. Not only does it build suspense far better than a chronological format and make the novel more unique, but, as historical fiction, it presents a non-linear view of history, which is important. Not everything should be read as a cause-and-effect event. By jumbling the timeline of his plot, Doerr makes history less linear and more circular–or perhaps the more correct term would be “squiggly.” Yes, Doerr’s book is squiggly.
It’s also tragic. Consider this a formal heads up to have tissues ready (if the WWII setting wasn’t enough of an indication). In spite of the tragedy, it ends well–Doerr spends just the right amount of time tying up loose ends.
Recommendation: This strikes me as something fans of The Book Thief would love. I think it’s a good read for anyone with the patience and appreciation for Doerr’s level of detail and an interest in WWII. There is a scene later in the book that may trigger some who have been abused, though Doerr handles the content well.