This novel follows the stories of two young people growing up during the Second World War. Marie-Laure is a blind girl living with her widowed father in Paris and Werner is an orphan boy growing up in an orphanage with his sister in a German mining town.
The book alternates with short chapters from each of their stories. There are also time hops. The book begins on a night of terrible peril for both characters towards the end of the war then jumps back a few years to tell us how the characters arrived at this point, then every now and then the author throws in another moment from this one night to sort of remind us where we are heading before jumping back to the more linear story of our characters.
Overall I did not feel this book worked, which is a shame as there were some good moments and themes within. I loved the character of Werner and the dark journey he found himself on. It really dealt well with the question often asked about the rise of Nazism ‘how did this happen?’ ‘why did so many people go along with this evil?’.
Poor Werner has a really bleak future as a child, no parents and the only possible future mapped out for him is a dangerous grim life toiling in the mines. But he is exceptional bright and wins a place at an elite school run by Nazis. It feels like an amazing opportunity and his sister is the only one with doubts that it is the right path for him. He never actually decides to become a Nazi and early on his journey the marching, chanting and arm bands seem relatively harmless, just meaningless routines he must go along with to get a good education and the advantages it brings. By the time the more sinister elements become apparent it is almost too late and would take a huge act of courage and rebellion from Werner to leave the path he has found himself on…and he is still just a boy. Although I wished Werner would rebel I understood why he didn’t and had huge sympathy for him and his plight.
The only problem with the very compelling story is I kept having to leave it every few pages to read about Marie-Laure! I felt the author seemed to prefer her journey and devoted many more pages to it than Werner’s. I found her tale a little dull in comparison. There was some interest in reading how she copes with her blindness in wartime and some tension as her father and her have to flee Paris to stay with relatives. But she is just so good, and her father is good, and her uncle who she later stays with is good – there wasn’t any of the juicy moral conflict we got with Werner.
Another issue with the book was I felt the climax of the book (although not the end of the story), which I referred to earlier, this one night of terrible peril when our main character’s stories merge together and each faces extreme danger – was badly handled. Doerr tries to build up to it throughout the book by starting there and giving us regular reminders it is coming, then when it finally arrives for our characters he tries to rack up the tension further with very very short chapters, some less than a page, alternating between viewpoints and some covering just a few minutes of time. This seems to go on forever, bouncing back and forth between them for page after page after page, I got to the ‘oh just get on with it!’ moment very quickly. And, of course, when the climax comes it is bound to be an anti-climax after all that build up. From there the novel sort of fizzles out and Doerr does that really annoying thing where he feels he has to tie up every possible lose end, going years and years into the future and ensuring the reader has no opportunity whatever to make their own minds up about any aspect of the fate of the characters.
I quite enjoyed the beginning and the middle sections but by the end I was sick of it and very glad to take it back to the library.