The power of radio, literature, nature, and love to incite imagination, resilience, and survival during WWII (Saint-Malo, France, 1944; and 1934/ 1974/2014 Paris, Germany): This extraordinary novel – “ten years in the writing” by an author who has garnered a number of literary awards – inspired me to buy a new dictionary! (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition: over 2,000 pages, 4,000 visuals.) It often reads like mini-dictionaries in the natural, mechanical, and technical sciences, evoking so many beautiful things like mollusks and gemstones that offer stark contrasts to the horrors of Hitler’s war. They also serve to stir the mind and spirit of a freckled blind French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, whose soul is the soul of this historical novel, which opens with the German occupation of the walled city of Saint-Malo on the Breton coast, two months after D-Day.
Doerr’s novel is also a stand-out for its unique structure. Clocking in more than 500 pages for the advanced reader copy, no chapter is longer than four or five pages, many merely one or two. The effect is fast, edgy pacing, strengthened by chapters that alternate back and forth between “The Girl” and “The Boy” (see below) and in time. Doerr’s style is crisp and notable. The payoff is spellbinding tension, an intensity you feel straightaway; it relentlessly grows as the reader awaits the convergence of the stories of “The Girl” and “The Boy,” so sure are we that they will.
When we meet “The Boy” he is close in age to Marie-Laure: seven-year-old Werner Pfennig, who lives at an orphanage with his prescient sister, Jutta, in Zollverein, Germany, near Essen, which is “steel country, anthracite country, a place full of holes.” Their backbreaking mines took the life of their father; Werner is resolute not to repeat that dreadful life. Instead, he endures grueling training in a misguided notion of duty to country. That Werner – who appears fragile (hair as white as snow; a “faint presence;” “like being in the room with a feather. But his soul glowed with some fundamental kindness”) – becomes one of the Reich’s prized cadets at the National Political Institutes of Education #6 at Schulpforta is, like so much else in this novel, presented in bold contradictions. Werner’s development and experiences allow the author to delve into why Germans did what they did.
Werner happens to be a genius with radios – receivers, variable capacitors, inductors, motors, wires, tuning coils, solenoids, attenuators, ohmmeters, wave turbulence, ion detectors, Morse beacon, code breaking – so he becomes valuable. He tracks radio transmissions across Russia, Ukraine, Italy, and Austria, with his huge comrade Volkheimer (his size emphasizes Werner’s actions). They ultimately reach Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure LeBlanc is hiding out with her father, having escaped burning Paris, at her great uncle’s Etienne’s house.
Number 4 rue Vauborel stands as a sentinel overlooking the sea. Since returning from WWI, Etienne has never left the house. And yet, “he has found himself at the nexus of information” because of a large radio hidden on the 6th floor that gives him “the whole world right at his fingertips.” He forms an endearing relationship with his brave niece. Saint-Malo’s beaches and anti-resistance movement provide a powerful setting that clashes with the ugliness of war.
As the novel flashes back to 1934, Marie-Laure is six years old living in Paris with her father, a locksmith at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. This is a cleverly invented profession: the mind of a locksmith who can keep straight 12,000 locks also builds intricate puzzles and a scale model of their neighborhood in Montmartre – “hundreds of houses and shops and hotels” – so his daughter can find her way out. Later, he labors to build an even more complicated model for her: Saint-Malo with its 865 buildings. His laboriousness and ingenuity are testaments to a profound love that “will outstrip the limits of his body.”
In Marie-Laure, the author asks us to think deeply about the nature of blindness. Doerr shows us how great books and classical music and mental puzzles unlock her imagination, giving rise to a remarkable resiliency when faced with the terrors of war. The author presumably loves literature, and gives that love to Maria whose mind we see enthralled as she reads to us from Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. In Captain Nemo, for instance, we are reminded of the “great machine of curiosity, free of nations and politics, cruising through the kaleidoscopic wonders of the sea” – prose and stories that let Marie-Laure see the light. Of course, she reads these books in Braille: “the raised dots form letters, the letters words, the words a world.”
There are other important characters with intersecting stories. One is Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, a former gemologist with a passion for diamonds. He’s been put in charge of collecting treasures – “things he did not dream he would see in six lifetimes” – precious European and Russian objects. The timeliness to the Monument’s Men feels eerie. The Sergeant’s obsession with diamonds forms the perfect storm because there’s a legendary, rare 133 carat, gray-blue diamond of the sea – Sea of Flames – that has gone missing from the natural history museum since the Germans occupied Paris.
The author must loves birds too, because they fly across the pages. He imbues the character of Frederick, a cadet friend of Werner’s, with this passion. Frederick’s 434 exquisitely drawn Birds of America is “not so much full of birds as full of evanescence, of blue-winged, trumpeting mysteries.” What happens to Frederick, whose crime was faking his vision to get into military school, is heartbreaking, beautifully told.
Like the novel’s provocative themes, the title is thought-provoking. I think it refers to Imagination – especially the blind French girl’s and the orphaned German boy’s – imagination that brings to light that which they both cannot see, connecting them. According to the author’s website, the title refers to “radio waves that we cannot see” and the hidden stories of WWII, particularly those of “ordinary children.” I think these two interpretations are reasonably close, except to say that what happens to “The Girl” and to “The Boy” is anything but ordinary.
This is a novel that stays with you. Lorraine