“When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”
Author: Anthony Doerr Published: 2014 Pages: 461
The novel begins in 1934 and journeys all the ways through until 1944, following the lives of a French girl and German boy whose paths eventually cross. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is an inquisitive girl who loses her sight aged 6. Her father, a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History, does all he can to make sure she can still live her life to the full by buying her brail books, making sure she knows how to get home on her own, and making her puzzles to solve on her birthday. In his museum, legend says that a diamond is hidden there called the “Sea of Flames”; the jewel is blue with dancing red flames at its centre, and it is said that whoever owns it will never die, but that the ones they love will encounter misfortune and death instead. At the same time, in Germany, Werner Pfennig lives in an orphanage with his sister, Jutta. They find an old radio and Werner uses his intuition and natural intelligence to fix it so they may listen to music and commentary in the orphanage. When the Germans invade France, Marie and her father flee to a distant relative’s house for protection, while over in Germany, Werner is enlisted into Hitler’s youth. Two young people whose situations could not be more different, find themselves destined to meet, but how will they fair in a war that seems to prey on the weak and has no mercy?
This book was just stunning. I fell in love with all the characters and Doerr does an amazing job of making the story equally as inspiring as it is heartbreaking. Marie is one of the most endearing protagonists I’ve ever met; she refuses to let her lack of sight inhibit her ability to enjoy anything and her curious nature makes her a dangerous ally to those around her. On the other hand, Werner’s intelligence and ignorance about the true horror of the institution he is part of, also makes him endearing. This, along with his stressed relationship with his sister, makes his character more complex than Marie’s but ultimately innocent of the crimes of his country.
The subplot of the Sea of Flames jewell also made the novel even more intriguing. While I was immensely engrossed by the storylines of the two protagonists, I also couldn’t help but be hooked by the mystery of the jewell. I always enjoy stories that, while based in real life, have an element of the mystical about them.
The only character I was rather uninterested by, was Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, who was hellbent on finding the Sea of Flames. I supposed it added another layer of danger to Marie’s story, but ultimately I was bored by him and just wanted to know more about Marie and Werner.
Overall this stunning narrative portrays two characters, hauntingly altered by the war, but ultimately who prove that even in a time of such misery and grief, there is hope and there is innocence. Children in WWII witnessed horrors which no one should ever see, but our two protagonists prove, undoubtedly, that sometimes their youth is far more wise than the ignorance of those dictating the horrendous war.