I never wanted to read this book for the longest time. From all the descriptions and reviews I read online, it seemed like another The Book Thief – a book I loved, but I didn’t particularly want to read another book about children in World War 2.
I eventually caved in and got this book because all the reviews were just too glowing to ignore any longer.
Here’s what the book is about.
The book follows the lives of two main protagonists:
- Marie Laure is a blind French girl who flees Paris with her father to her uncle’s home in Saint-Malo when the Germans invade. In their possession is a priceless diamond with a fateful history.
- Werner Pfennig is a brilliant German boy who wants to be an inventor, but who is made to realize he cannot meet his dreams without selling his soul in exchange for it.
Another character (almost like a character considering how it is prevalent throughout) in this book is the technology. Both Marie and Werner were so fascinated by science, and the science itself was so beautiful and poetic that I just loved reading about it.
Marie Laure is obsessed with sea creatures – all types of molluscs in particular, and a good part of the book is dedicated to her feeling all these different molluscs, their shells, and her understanding of them.
The murex Dr Geffard keeps on his desk can entertain her for half an hour, the hollow spines, the ridged whorls, the deep entrance; it’s a forest of spikes and caves and textures; it’s a kingdom.
Werner is equally intrigued by the technology behind the radio. A veritable prodigy, he is soon identified by the top brass and put to use in the field – using his skills to trap resistance fighters (or terrorists, as they were called. Oh, the irony!) who co-ordinated their attacks via the radio and kill them.
Soon their paths meet, and what ensues is typical Boy meets Girl in wartime Saint-Malo. Love ensues.
Werner thinks of her, whether he wishes to or not. Girl with a cane, girl in a gray dress, girl made of mist. That air of otherworldliness in the snarls of her hair and the fearlessness of her step. She takes up residence inside him.
But things are rarely that straightforward and once the war is over, Werner must face the consequences of his actions.
Oh! I loved this book. I didn’t cry as many buckets as I did when I read The Book Thief, but I think I appreciate the subtlety of this book better. Werner especially is written so brilliantly. He stands by and watches some horrific deeds throughout the book, but at the same time, his character is so well-explained that I could understand why he stood by mute.
Marie Laure is a more straightforward likable character, but her very likability resonated less with me. She was a little too good to be true. I did love her passion for books though – especially for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, which was also one of my favorite childhood reads.
So far, I have talked only about Marie Laure and Werner, but there were some wonderfully complex supporting characters as well. Jutta – Werner’s sister and his conscience, Frederick – his best friend who loves birds, Volkheimer – the gentle giant who is capable of some horrific actions, all fantastic. The French Resistance members were also wonderful.
The atmosphere in the book also seems so true to the time. I can’t explain very clearly but reading this book was a completely immersive experience. I really felt the desperation and helplessness of the people in wartime France and Germany in a way that I didn’t feel when I read The Book Thief. Maybe it is because this book is bigger in scope with more characters, settings, and lot of discussion going on about current events. At no point reading the book could I ignore that it was wartime in Europe. The effects of the war are seen in all the small details and descriptions.
The change in atmosphere from wartime Europe to the 1970s and then the 21st century was also brilliantly done. This was writing at its most masterly – the situations and the moods change so drastically yet the book still retains the wonderfully moody style of writing in the earlier sections.
Overall, just the most beautifully written book, and I could easily add another 20-30 lines in this post filling it up with beautiful quotes that I loved from it. I”ll spare you that however and urge you to go read the book. This is a book that is very readable (the language is simple, the chapters are short), but I think it is one of those books that no one can not be moved by.
What do you think? Have you read this book?