The year is 1944, the month is August and the day is the 7th. A young boy and a young girl are trapped within the walls of the once peaceful port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany. Destiny, an unfathomable yet magnificent force in literature, has picked these two individuals from two very different backgrounds and brought them together for what would seem like a befitting union.
Alas, Doerr’s lyrical tale is much more complicated than the everyday boy-meets-girl romance read. Instead, Doerr has weaved this poetic tale complete with happiness and deep loving relationships, yes, but also with painful heartache and the bitter truth that actions almost always cause some type of consequence.
While the book starts out in World War II, the narrative flips back and forth, taking readers on an odyssey of mankind, of human nature and how even in times of absolute darkness, the glimmer of hope and kindness within very few people provides a vital lifeline.
The “girl” in this story is Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a bright young French girl whose father, a single parent, is the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in charge of ensuring that all of the priceless artifacts are kept securely locked away. It is here that Marie-Laure meets another integral part of this novel in 1934 – a stunning jewel, named the Sea of Flames for its brilliance that has captivated many for decades. Legends claim that the jewel brings death to anyone who possesses it, although the owner is always out of harm’s way.
Meanwhile, in a small German coal mining town named Zollverein is Werner Pfenning, a young boy whose circumstances are different than Marie-Laure’s. Living in an orphanage, Werner’s best friend is his younger sister Jutta, a girl whose maturity is far beyond her years. Werner’s future seems bleak. Boys are ordered to work in the coal mines as soon as they enter into their midteens. The only thing that Werner cherishes is a radio program on science that turns out later to be broadcast-ed by Marie-Laure’s great-uncle, Etienne. The programs spur Werner to put his intelligence to use on radios, which ultimately earn him a reputation within his community, including that of a young German officer.
As the war breaks out, both Werner and Marie-Laure and hurled into tumultuous circumstances. Marie-Laure’s father is given what might be the Sea of Flames (or a decoy) by the Museum for safekeeping. Because of the stone’s immeasurable value which would no doubt pique the German government’s interest, he is forced to flea Paris with Marie-Laure in hand. While in Germany, news of Werner’s talent becomes sought after and he is enlisted into a school where the blue-ness of his eyes and whiteness of his hair is recorded, along with measurements and observations of every possible part of his body.
I will stop here, for fear I might divulge too much information of this story. It is one of the most hauntingly beautiful and sensory books I’ve read so far and I do not want to rob any reader of the immense joy that comes from reading it. If there was one writer whose style I wish to emulate, it is Doerr’s in this book. The writing is so beautiful and filled with vivid descriptions of places and people that evoke all five senses (“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.”). It was a book I wanted to live in, surrounded by Marie-Laure and her family in that port city.
Beyond the language, the tale contains elements of human nature that touch the deep core of a soul. The title itself is a play of the author – Marie-Laure is blind from cataracts and the professor in the radio program talks about light. (“What do we call visible light? We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.”) But it also speaks of that light we yearn for in a time when the shrouds of a war envelop everything that seems to be good and true. That light of hope, that faint glimmer of human kindness is tested within the covers of this book.
If you are looking for a book to whisk you away, out of this world into another using gorgeous prose that lights up your imagination, this is it.
Click here for the review of the book by The Washington Post.