This is the story of two children who are leading very different lives in the run up to the Second World War. Marie-Laure is a young blind girl, doted on by her father who works as a locksmith and curator of keys in the Natural History Museum in Paris. Werner is an orphan, living in a children’s home in Germany with his sister Jutta and the kindly nun Frau Elena. Werner’s precocious talent for electronics brings him to the attention of Nazi officials who are grooming young boys to serve in the army, and as war breaks out both children’s lives inevitably take very dramatic turns. Marie-Laure and her father flee to her great uncle’s house in a coastal town, whilst Werner’s technical skills see him fast-tracked at a young age into an army cell which travels across Europe searching out the forbidden radio equipment used by resistance fighters to broadcast tactics and propaganda.
It’s a very sensual novel in a lot of ways; Marie-Laure’s lack of sight serves only to heighten her senses of smell, touch and taste and Doerr uses these qualities to allow her imagination to run riot at the same time as the world around her is closing in. She’s a voracious reader of braille books which her father and uncle struggle to acquire for her when the grip of Nazi occupation takes hold. She quickly works her way through children’s classics such as The Three Musketeers and Around the World in Eighty Days, but it’s the imagery and heroism in Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea which really seems to grip and inspire her.
The cast of supporting characters is rich and authentic; I found the stories of Marie’s agoraphobic Uncle Etienne and Werner’s bird-loving friend Frederick particularly moving, and the actions of a number of the characters illustrate perfectly that there are good and bad people on both sides of every conflict and nothing is ever black and white.
Doerr manages to convey the innocence and essential humanity of these two young people amidst the brutality and destruction of war, without resorting to sentimentality or melodrama . Although the characters are young, this isn’t a children’s or YA novel in the manner of The Book Thief or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. It’s a very harrowing read at times, but also moving and magical, and the memory of it will stay with me for quite some time.