This bestseller focuses on the life of a blind French girl and a German boy-soldier along with a cast of supporting characters during World War II. The central theme is one of people trapped in dire circumstances beyond their control. What will they do within their limited range of choices; go along with the flow to survive, or do the morally right thing and risk the consequences?
Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris before the war and he works at the natural history museum as a master of locks. The museum has a brilliant 133 caret diamond, called the “sea of flames”, which they make three replicas of and entrust each of the four stones to a different employee of the museum in hopes of keeping the real jewel out of the hands of the Germans. Marie-Laure’s father is given one of the stones to safeguard. As the war encroaches on their lives with the German invasion of France, father and daughter flee to the west and end up in Saint-Malo on the coast of Brittany, France. Meanwhile, in Germany, in a coal mining town, a bright young orphan, Werner, is teaching himself about radios, physics, and math, and applies to a boarding school to escape becoming a coal miner at age 15. He is accepted to the school which turns out to be a Nazi institution for training students for the military or science careers to advance the war effort. He is appalled by the brutality at the school, but avoids objecting because he wants to get through school and become a scientist. Eventually he is assigned duty in the Army as a private using a radio triangulation system which he developed to locate enemy transceivers. During the course of the war things get more desperate on both sides. Marie-Laure’s father is called back to Paris by the museum and is captured and sent to a prison camp. Marie-Laure is living with her uncle and his housekeeper who gets involved in the resistance and brings the other two in to help. Their lives become increasingly restricted by the Germans and shortages of everything. Eventually, Werner’s unit is called into Saint-Malo to ferret out a resistance transmitter which turns out to be in the attic of the house that Marie-Laure lives in and is operated by her uncle. Witnessing the horrors of war has transformed Werner and he progresses from a passive enabler of Nazi brutality to a resister, by purposely not ‘seeing’ the location of Marie-Laure’s uncle’s transmitter. After an Allied bombing raid on Saint-Malo, Werner is trapped in a cellar across town from Marie-Laure who is trapped in the attic of her uncle’s house. A German officer who is looking for the diamond is in the house downstairs and unaware of her presence upstairs. Marie-Laure transmits a distress call which Werner hears on his receiver. He finds her house and saves her from the German officer. Werner leads her to escape from the bombed out city and they part company. In the epilogue we learn that Marie-Laure has survived to the present and has a daughter and grandson.
Much of the thematic examination in the story is conveyed through extensive use of symbols of dark and light. Even the radio waves which Werner uses are alluded to as a form of light in a children’s science show that Werner hears before the war, coincidently broadcast by Marie-Laure’s uncle:
“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.”
Other symbols of light and dark include: the diamond, the coal mines, the dark cellar of a bombed hotel, a tunnel underneath the fortress wall at Saint-Malo, and Marie-Laure’s blindness, to name a few. In a more figurative sense, light and dark are used to represent reason, knowledge, wisdom, moral sense, and courage verses fear, chaos, barbarism, killing, destruction, thievery, and oppression. The “light we cannot see” suggests a source of light obscured by the state of war and the loss in ability of many people to behave humanely; a mass blindness. The irony of a blind girl “seeing the light” through her courage and sense of right and wrong carries home the central theme of the story.
I found the book entertaining and captivating from the first page. The close up, intimate look at the main characters makes the war personal and is counterbalanced by the broad sweep of time, location, and events through which the characters navigate. Anthony Doerr’s writing style is reader-friendly with short chapters, which alternate scenes between the French and Germans, and converge, propelling the action to a crescendo. The book is highly visual and the scenes told from Marie-Laure’s point of view give a detailed impression of vulnerability and moving about the world without sight. This is a likely candidate for a movie script.